Imagine a world where you can expect the same outcome in life regardless of whether you’re born a boy or a girl. You will be educated to the same level, enjoy the same access to healthcare, have the same opportunities and the same pay at work, and make your voice heard just as loudly in politics. That’s a world with no gender gap, and it doesn’t exist. In every country, there are disparities in the kind of lives that men and women can expect to lead.

How do we measure it?

In our research, 0 represents maximum inequality between the sexes, while 1 means there is no gender gap. A higher number is a better number for parity. We look at data reflecting how women fare in 145 countries around the world, in four key areas.

  1. Economic participation and opportunity: how many women are in the workforce, how well are they paid, how high do they fly?
  2. Education: how many girls and women access education, from primary level to university?
  3. Political empowerment: when a country makes decisions, how many women are at the table?
  4. Health and survival: is there a natural ratio of male to female births (in some countries, gender-specific abortion is a problem), and how do life expectancies compare?

Thirteen out of the 14 variables used to create our index are from publicly available hard data sources such as the International Labour Organization, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, while one comes from a perception survey run by the World Economic Forum.

Which country has the smallest gender gap?

Iceland. The tiny Nordic country has a score of 0.881, meaning it has closed most of its gap. It’s followed by Norway, Finland and then Sweden. On the whole, these Nordic economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in more women at work and in leadership roles. Ireland is the highest placed non-Nordic country, ranking fifth. Rwanda (sixth), Philippines (seventh) and New Zealand (10th) are the only non-European countries in the top 10. While richer countries dominate the list, the index doesn’t reflect a country’s wealth, but how equitably its resources are shared.

And where is it worst?

With a score of 0.484, it’s Yemen, where women are unable to leave the house without the permission of a male relative. Bear in mind that we only measure the 145 countries in the world that provide data, and being able to benchmark a country in the first place is an important first step towards improvement. Following Yemen at the bottom of our table are Pakistan, then Syria, and Chad. The 10 poorest performing countries are all in the Middle East and Africa. What is life like for women in these countries? The pattern varies dramatically, both between and within countries, but in the worst pockets, girls will have little or no education, no choice in whom they marry and when, no opportunity to work outside the home and not much chance of seeing female politicians fighting their corner.

How has the gender gap changed over time?

Thankfully, it has narrowed – but not by much. In the decade since we’ve been measuring it, the overall gender gap has closed by 4%. The economic gap has narrowed by just 3%, suggesting it will take another 118 years for women around the world to have the same opportunities at work as men. Even though an additional quarter of a billion women have entered the workforce since 2006, wage inequality persists, with women only now earning what men did a decade ago. And not every area of life is getting better for women: the gap in health and survival has in fact widened since 2006.

Which countries are making progress most quickly? Which are slipping backwards?

Latin America is the region that has seen the most improvement. In terms of individual countries, the picture is mixed: the best performers at closing the gap are Nicaragua, Bolivia, Nepal, Slovenia and France. Meanwhile, some countries are going backwards. Sri Lanka, Jordan, Croatia, the Slovak Republic and Mali have declined the most.

What works at closing the gap?

There’s no simple answer. If we want a world with no gender gap, we need changes in policies, in business practices and in cultural attitudes. Developed countries should support affordable childcare and parental leave, with better protections for low-wage and part-time workers, while developing countries need legal reforms to give women equal rights in land ownership, inheritance and access to credit. Meanwhile, businesses can set targets to recruit and promote women, introduce mentorship programmes and establish transparent salary bands to reduce gender pay gaps.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a couple of interesting trends emerge. There’s a strong correlation between economic and political empowerment: these two areas seem to reinforce one another, as women get ahead at work and seek better representation in politics; and as female politicians set policies to support women’s professional lives. We’ve also seen that closing the gap isn’t as simple as educating girls and expecting the rest to follow naturally. High rates of female education do not always translate into high-flying women leaders. More women than men are enrolling at university in the majority of countries we cover (97 out of 145), but in most countries men still outnumber women in skilled jobs and only four countries in the world (Philippines, Colombia, Fiji and Ghana) have more women than men in senior roles in the workplace. We need to pay more attention to the complex mix of factors that hold women back if we’re to turn a world with no gender gap from utopia to reality.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2015 is available here.

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Author: Ceri Parker, Commissioning Editor, Forum Blog, World Economic Forum

Image: A woman looks out to sea on the beach in Brighton, southern England June 7, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton