In nine years of measuring the global gender gap, the world has seen only a small improvement in equality for women in the workplace. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2014, launched today, the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity now stands at 60% worldwide, having closed by 4% from 56% in 2006 when the Forum first started measuring it. Based on this trajectory, with all else remaining equal, it will take 81 years for the world to close this gap completely.

The ninth edition of the report finds that, among the 142 countries measured, the gender gap is narrowest in terms of health and survival. This gap stands at 96% globally, with 35 countries having closed the gap entirely. This includes three countries that have closed the gap in the past 12 months. The educational attainment gap is the next narrowest, standing at 94% globally. Here, 25 countries have closed the gap entirely. While the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity lags stubbornly behind, the gap for political empowerment, the fourth pillar measured, remains wider still, standing at just 21%, although this area has seen the most improvement since 2006.

With no one country having closed its overall gender gap, Nordic nations remain the most gender-equal societies in the world. Last year’s leading four nations – Iceland (1), Finland (2), Norway (3) and Sweden (4) – are joined by Denmark, which climbs from eighth place to fifth. Elsewhere in the top 10 there is considerable movement, with Nicaragua climbing four places to sixth, Rwanda entering the index for the first time at seventh, Ireland falling to eighth, the Philippines declining four places to ninth and Belgium climbing one place to tenth.

Further up the index, the United States climbs three places to 20 in 2014, after narrowing its wage gap and improving the number of women in parliamentary and ministerial level positions. Among the BRICS grouping, the highest-placed nation is South Africa (18), supported by strong scores on political participation. Brazil is next at 71, followed by Russia (75), China (87) and India (114).

Regional Analysis

Countries from Europe and Central Asia occupy 12 of the top 20 positions in the index, one less than last year. Of the region’s major economies, Germany climbs two places to 12th, France leaps from 45th to 16th, while the UK falls eight places to 26th. France’s gain is mostly due to increases in the number of women in politics, including 49% women ministers – one of the highest ratios in the world, and narrowing wage gaps. The UK’s lower position can be mainly attributed to changes in income estimates.

In Asia and the Pacific, the Philippines remains the region’s highest-ranked country, followed by New Zealand (13) and Australia (24). These nations are regional outliers, however, as only one other nation, Mongolia (42), places in the top 50. Singapore, the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos and Thailand come next in 59th, 60th and 61st place, respectively. Japan climbs one place to 104th; China falls 18 places to 87th, largely due to its very low sex ratio at birth; and India slumps to 114th, making it the lowest-ranked BRICS nation and one of the few countries where female labour force participation is shrinking.

At sixth, Nicaragua reinforces it position as Latin America and the Caribbean’s gender parity leader, due to strong performance in health, education and political gaps. It is one of 10 countries from the region that make the top 50 this year. Among the larger economies, Brazil’s nine-place decline to 71st happened in spite of having successfully closed both its educational attainment and health and survival gender gaps. Its priority must now be to secure returns on its investment through higher female participation in the labour force. Mexico’s drop to 80th, on the other hand, comes as a result of reduced female representation in politics, but is  partially offset by improvements in labour force participation and income gaps.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Kuwait, at 113th, is the highest-placed country in the region, after making significant gains in overall income, including for women. The United Arab Emirates, at 115th, falls in the rankings but shows major improvement relative to its past performance on economic and political participation and remains the second highest-ranked country in the region. The region is also home to the lowest-ranked country in the index, Yemen, which, at 142nd, has remained at the bottom of the index since  2006; but it has significantly improved relative to its own past scores.

Sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, boasts three countries in the top 20 of the index. The highest placed, Rwanda, scores highly in terms of economic and political participation and is the highest-ranked developing country in the index. Next is Burundi, which climbs five places to 17th, followed by South Africa. Nigeria, the region’s largest economy, falls 12 places to 118th.

Nine Years of Data

Nine years of data from the Global Gender Gap Report – first published in 2006 – reveal the pattern of change around the world relative to countries’ own past performance and in relation to each other.

Much of the progress on gender equality over the last 10 years has come from more women entering politics and the workforce. While more women and more men have joined the workforce over the last decade, more women than men entered the labour force in 49 countries. And in the case of politics, globally, there are now 26% more female parliamentarians and 50% more female ministers than nine years ago. These are far-reaching changes – for economies and national cultures, however it is clear that much work still remains to be done, and that the pace of change must in some areas be accelerated.

Progress has not been even across the four pillars of economy, politics, health and education. On educational attainment and health and survival, although many countries have already reached parity, the trend is actually reversing in some parts of the world. In fact, nearly 30% of the countries covered have wider education gaps than they did nine years ago, and over 40% of countries have wider health and survival gaps than they did nine years ago.

The direction of change within countries from 2006 to the present day has been largely positive, but not universally so. Of the 111 countries that have been continuously covered in the report over the last nine years, 105 have narrowed their gender gaps, but another six have seen prospects for women deteriorate. These six countries are spread across regions: in Asia, it is Sri Lanka; in Africa, Mali; in Europe, Croatia and Macedonia; and in the Middle East, Jordan and Tunisia. In the Americas, no country has widening gender gaps.

While the Nordic nations continue to act as role models in terms of their ability to achieve gender parity, some of the biggest absolute and relative improvements of the past nine years have come from countries that are low in the rankings. For example, the most improved country relative to its starting point nine years ago for economic participation and opportunity is Saudi Arabia; Burkina Faso for educational attainment; Angola for health and survival; and the United Arab Emirates for political empowerment. In absolute terms, the most improved countries include Guatemala for economic participation; Nepal for educational attainment; Angola for health and survival; and Nicaragua for political empowerment.

Within the economic participation category, Nepal, Botswana and Nigeria have had the most absolute gain in terms of increased rates of female labour force participation. Kuwait, Luxembourg and Singapore have seen the largest absolute gains on women’s income. The largest gains on women in senior roles – legislator, senior official and manager positions – have come from France, Madagascar and Honduras, while on high-skilled roles in general – professional and technical workers – Bulgaria, Honduras and Ecuador have the lead.

The countries with the most losses relative to their past performance are: Jordan on economic participation; Angola on educational attainment; India on health; and Botswana on political empowerment. The least-improved countries in absolute terms are: Mali for economic participation; Angola for educational attainment; India for health and survival; and Sri Lanka for political empowerment.

The region with the largest absolute change is Latin America, followed by North America, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Middle East and North Africa. Europe has shown the smallest absolute change. When compared to their own starting points nearly a decade ago, however, the order of relative change is slightly different, with the Middle East outperforming Asia.

Business and Policy Implications

Healthy and educated women are likely to have healthier and more educated children, creating a virtuous cycle for any community or country. When the number of women involved in political decision-making reaches a critical mass, their decisions – which take into account the needs of a wider segment of society – lead to more inclusive results. Companies that recruit and retain women, and ensure that they attain leadership positions, outperform those that do not. The report covers the latest research on the benefits of gender equality from a variety of sectors, the current use of policy tools and business practices, and future implications for business leaders and policy-makers.


The Global Gender Gap Index ranks 142 countries on the gap between women and men on health, education, economic and political indicators. It aims to understand whether countries are distributing their resources and opportunities equitably between women and men, irrespective of their overall income levels. The report measures the size of the gender inequality gap in four areas:

  • Economic participation and opportunity – salaries, participation and leadership
  • Education – access to basic and higher levels of education
  • Political empowerment – representation in decision-making structures
  • Health and survival – life expectancy and sex ratio

Index scores can be interpreted as the percentage of the gap that has been closed between women and men, and allow countries to compare their current performance relative to their past performance. In addition, the rankings allow for comparisons between countries. Thirteen out of the 14 variables used to create the index are from publicly available hard data indicators from international organizations such as the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Health Organization.

Author: Saadia Zahidi is a Senior Director, Head of Gender Parity and Human Capital and Constituents at the World Economic Forum.

Image: A booth assistant checks out a video game of BTD STUDIO Co. Ltd. and Quattro Media Corporation with a mobile phone during Tokyo Game Show 2006 at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, east of Tokyo, September 22, 2006. REUTERS/Kiyoshi Ota