Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Gender equality is better for all of us, so why is it taking so long to close the 'gender gap'? Hear the podcast: Radio Davos

Gender gap 2022: Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum

Saadia Zahidi talks about the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 on Radio Davos Image: WEF

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

  • World Economic Forum Gender Gap report 2022 is out now.
  • Iceland still ranks as most gender-equal country.
  • At current rate of progress, it would take 132 years to close the gap between men and women around the world.
  • The Radio Davos podcast hears from the Forum's Saadia Zahidi

Every year, the World Economic Forum publishes research on the position of women in society around the world, and calculates the 'gender gap' - how far opportunities for women - in the workplace, in education, in politics and business - lag behind that of men.

The latest Gender Gap Report has just come out. It surveys 146 countries and finds that, while there is some progress towards gender equality, at the current rate it would still take 132 years to fully close the gender gap.

The report features a ranking, and it’s perhaps unsurprising to see that leading the top-10 most equal societies are the likes of Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. But a couple of African countries are up there too - Rwanda and Namibia in sixth and eighth place.

You can read the whole report here, but to get a flavour of it - why it matters, and what lessons governments and companies can draw from it, the Radio Davos podcast spoke to to Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society which published the report.

Gender Gap - Radio Davos podcast transcript

Gayle Markovitz, Radio Davos: What is the Global Gender Gap report? How do you measure it? And who's the report aimed at?

Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society: The Global Gender Gap report looks at countries on four different aspects of gender equality. One: health and survival; two: educational attainment; three: economic participation opportunity; and four: political empowerment. And we try to cover as many countries as we possibly can to understand how they're doing every year on these four measures and then trying to cover as many countries then we can over time. And we're now in the 16th year of this report.

Gayle Markovitz: There's always a figure which you put against closing the gender gap. And I know back in 2020 it was at 100 [years]. This year it's increased to 132. What does that mean?

Saadia Zahidi: So we take the backward looking trend and we see, depending on how fast or how slowly the gender gap is being closed over the last few years, we project that out into the future and we aim to make a light-touch prediction as to how long it will take to close that gender gap. And so up until 2020, if we took all the year's trends since 2006, the rate of change was such that we would have closed the gender gap in 100 years. Now that is already incredibly long. But what happened during the two years of the pandemic is that it became worse. And so now it's 132 years until we get to parity. So the time to parity got longer.

Gayle Markovitz: We're currently in a very difficult period economically, globally. Why is this recession different from previous recessions, and how do you think the global slowdown and cost of living crisis is affecting women and gender inequality?

Most previous recessions have tended to be worse for men ... What's happened this time is that women have been disproportionately affected.

Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society

Saadia Zahidi: Now, that is a complex question and it has a slightly complex answer. Most previous recessions have tended to be worse for men. Relatively speaking, and in absolute terms, they have tended to be worse for men. When we compare men's labour force participation and women's labour force participation and what that did to unemployment, if we look at recent crises where the data has been trying to capture these impacts, generally it has been worse for men.

What's happened this time is that women have been disproportionately affected, and I think we can see some very good anecdotal evidence for this beyond the data. If we look at the sectors that have been impacted in the long term. Look at travel and tourism - big employer of women. Look at what has happened in the health and care sectors. Now, those were some of the frontline essential workers that all of us relied on, and yet they haven't quite had the same support as one would expect. Longer term, look at the education sector. One of the most disrupted sectors tends to be a huge employer of women, consumer and retail sectors hospitality. These are all areas that are big employers of women and have been deeply impacted and simply have not bounced back in the same way as pre-pandemic. So there's one major area that's affected women.

A second aspect is care. Even before the pandemic, care responsibilities fell disproportionately towards women when it comes to elder care or childcare, in most families, the responsibility for care was falling on women. What's happened over the course of the pandemic is that the need for care increased because schools facilities were shutting down or care facilities were not available, childcare or elder care. And so much more of that fell on women. And in many cases, those women have simply not been able to go back to the workforce. They have not found any additional solutions for that care burden. And in most families, that care burden became even more focussed on women than it was before. And so we haven't quite found our way outside of this care crisis that existed even before and just became worse.

Gayle Markovitz: Those sectors that you mentioned, like hospitality, healthcare, which have traditionally been dominated by women, do we want women to go back to those sectors, or do you think it would be better if they were diversified? And if so, how do you do that?

Saadia Zahidi: So I think we need governments and business leaders to focus on all industries and sectors of the future. And of course, education, healthcare, these are all critical sectors for most of our economies, whether you're in an ageing population economy or whether you're in a much younger economy, all of these sectors matter. What we need to think about is valuing these sectors differently and not just in the couple of years of the pandemic, but actually really thinking through: if these sectors are so essential to our economies, then we need to value people differently, pay people better, have stronger certifications in those sectors, and overall professionalise these sectors so that there is much greater recognition of how important they are to societies. And that should also correct the imbalance or the gender segregation that currently exists in those sectors.

But there's a second element, which is, of course, the industries of the future also include technology, advanced manufacturing, ICT. These are all areas that also are going to be part of our future. We all know that the pandemic simply accelerated the essential nature of these sectors for our economies for the future. Now if that is true, then we need to also ensure that many more women are going into these sectors, and that is simply not the case at present. Not only do these sectors tend not to be very large employers of women at present, but in addition, if we look at who is getting the degrees or who's getting the skills that will prepare them for the future for these sectors, it is simply not women in the same numbers as men.

Gayle Markovitz: And so, I mean, what would your message be to the private sector is? Is gender parity good for business?

Businesses rely on one of their greatest assets, which is human capital. And if that human capital is diverse, it is likely to be more creative and more productive.

Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society

Saadia Zahidi: Of course, gender parity is good for business. Businesses rely on one of their greatest assets, which is human capital. And if that human capital is diverse, it is likely to be more creative and more productive. If you have very homogenous teams, that's not likely to lead to creativity, and especially now when a lot of businesses are struggling against a difficult economic environment, this is a moment where creativity is needed. And so if this is the moment that businesses start rolling back on gender parity, they cannot hope to grow their way out of this crisis.

And a very similar principle applies to economies as a whole. If you look at the entire makeup of the human capital of an economy, it is very clear that men and women have to be equally integrated into the workforce. And in most parts of the world, the graduate degrees are being obtained in much higher numbers by women than by men. And so especially when it comes to the higher skilled white collar workforce, it's very clear that women make up the base of that talent, and so many more of them have to be integrated by employers. And governments then need to work on making that much easier for women and men, for all families, anyone with caregiving responsibility to be able to join the workforce and to be able to join a workforce that welcomes all of their talent and does not discriminate.

Gayle Markovitz: Is it surprising to see Rwanda, Namibia, two sub-Saharan African countries, in the list of the top ten?

Saadia Zahidi: We construct the index in a way that it is not related to the overall level of income of a country. So it's very clear that in poorer economies you have less access to education or healthcare services, or in richer economies the converse is true. But if you take that away and if you're only comparing the levels of access between women and men in each one of these areas across different economies, you're essentially not looking at the level of income of a country. And when you look at simply the gender gaps and compare those between women and men, yes, there are some very interesting findings. So the Nordic countries come out at the very top and that is not because they're rich. That is because they're dividing those resources and opportunities equally between women and men. And similarly, countries such as Namibia, countries such as Rwanda, are also making it into the top ten, not because they're able to provide the same level of education and healthcare access as richer economies, but because the level that they do have, they're distributing that more equally between women and men.

Gayle Markovitz: We know that Iceland is in pole position. How have they kept themselves up there? What are they doing right?

Saadia Zahidi: Iceland is the only country in the world that has closed just over 90% of its gender gap. The index looks at a scale that can roughly be translated into looking at the gap as percentages. It's the only country that's crossed this 90% mark, so it is not yet at parity, even if it is number one in the world and despite many, many years of progress. Now, what they've been able to do is, of course, close the healthcare gap, close the education gap. But they have been very good at integrating more women into the economy, into the labour force, and not just broadly into the labour force, but into positions of leadership, into skilled, technical, professional positions as well, and closing the wage gap, although it is not yet at zero.

Now, when it comes to political empowerment, that's also where Iceland has done fairly well. In fact, it has some of the longest standing number of years that they have had a female head of state or head of government, ministerial positions, parliamentary positions. And we know that that creates a virtuous cycle. The more women there are in leadership positions, the more likely that is going to be better for gender parity in the society as a whole.

Gayle Markovitz: So just picking up on on the issue of political empowerment, it's one of the areas where it's still only 22% closed. Why is it so consistently low?

Saadia Zahidi: When it comes to positions of leadership, both in business and in government, there is a massive gap to close. If we look at the Fortune 500, only 8.8% of the CEOs are women. There's a very similar story when it comes to political empowerment. Looking at our index over the last 16 years, if we take those trends out into the future, it's going to be more than 150 years before we're able to close the political empowerment gender gap. If we look at female heads of state in the last 50 years, that's just about 3.6% of the time that women and men have been occupying these positions, we were able to calculate that for the 50 years, just 3.6% of the time has been occupied by women in heads of state or heads of government positions. So this is incredibly small compared to what we need to get to.

Now where things are starting to change is when it comes to women in ministerial positions and women in parliamentary positions. So when it comes to ministerial positions, these went up from about 10% in 2006 to just over 16% in 2022. And when it comes to women in parliament, that went from just about 15% to nearly 23% this year. Now, this is nowhere close to parity. It needs to get a lot higher. But we are starting to see steady progress over the last few years.

Gayle Markovitz: Why is it really important that you have women leaders and role models? Is there a direct correlation between women going into those industries, for example? I mean, for example, in infrastructure, I saw there's only 16% parity. Would the problem be solved if you had more women CEOs in infrastructure.

Saadia Zahidi: So I think there's numerous cases for when it comes to having both women and men in leadership. There's the role model effect. If there are more women in powerful, visible leadership positions, both in business and in government, that tends to impact societies as a whole and inspire others to move into similar positions. Now, that applies to a woman being a prime minister or a president of a country as much as it does to CEOs in the infrastructure industry. But there's something beyond that, which is research has shown that more women in ministerial positions, more women in parliamentary positions, more women in local government - that simply tends to lead to a different set of decisions. For example, financial decisions, more women in committees that are deciding on how a budget in local governments should be spent will mean that a greater set of societal issues will be covered by that budget than if that decision was being made by a smaller, homogenous group representing only one part of society. Many different studies have shown that, and I think it's a very natural consequence, again, of diversity leading to better outcomes for all of society.

Gayle Markovitz: When we're looking at leadership and industry, which are the industries that tend to do better and which are those that have quite a lot of work to do?

Saadia Zahidi: When it comes to non-governmental organisations, education, personal services and well-being, these are all industries that tend to have above 40% women in leadership positions. So we're starting to get very close to parity. Now, on the other hand, there are industries like energy, only 20% of leadership roles occupied by women, manufacturing 19%, infrastructure 16%. And what's interesting is that we're not really seeing a very clear shake-up when it comes to the longer-term pipeline.

In the last few years, if we think about who's getting the right skills for these types of roles, it's very clear that there is, again, a segmentation. Women are tending to acquire the skills for sectors that already employ a lot of women. And those that are coming up through the pipeline, through the ranks of these industries, again, tend to be quite segregated along the same lines. And so it goes back to this role model effect. If we want to change things, we need to put more women in those leadership positions and businesses and government need to take a much more customised approach to ensuring that the right talent is being developed for these sectors, for these industries, for the future.

Gayle Markovitz: Moving over to women's health. We're still in we're still in a global pandemic. It hasn't gone away yet. The health and survival subindex, I read, is worse than the first report in 2006. Is that a direct result of COVID 19?

Saadia Zahidi: No, we're looking at aggregates here. So I think we couldn't possibly make the link at this very global level at the data that we're looking at. But the index does include a measure of the years that are lost to disease and disability, essentially. And that is where we're starting to see that there has been a slight loss rather than gains. All of the other indices, however, slowly are moving forward. This is the only one where we're unable to really say that.

Now, of course, we're very close to parity, but there have been some losses over the last years. However, if we look at what has happened over the last couple of years, it is clear that more of the burden of responsibility has ended up falling on women. That has created a stronger burden of mental health, that has created more stress for women. And at the same time, those that are in the position of providing some of that care, the care workers, the healthcare workers. also happen to be women. So overall, there is a concern about are we doing the right thing, are we providing enough support,

Gayle Markovitz: Yeah. I mean, that issue of women's stress, I read that it was 4% higher than men's. I mean, it doesn't seem like a lot, but do you think that's meaningful?

Saadia Zahidi: I think it is meaningful, especially if we're looking at a situation where women are not returning to the workforce in the same numbers as men. They are still continuing to face a much stronger caregiving burden. And we're starting to see, through various public opinion polls and through other more concrete measures of what's happening in terms of health care outcomes, that women are losing out or are facing a more uphill battle than men overall as societies we aim to come out of this crisis situation. So, of course, that has naturally an impact on the future.

Societies that give more agency to women over reproductive outcomes tend to also be the ones that have better economic outcomes.

Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society

Gayle Markovitz: And is there a link between women's reproductive rights, health outcomes and economic outcomes?

Saadia Zahidi: Societies that give more agency to women over reproductive outcomes tend to also be the ones that have better economic outcomes. Women are able to make choices about, for example, when to have children, and that leads to much better outcomes in terms of the children that they do have, they have better educational outcomes. Those families tend to do better economically, and all of that comes through, at a more macro level, for those economies as a whole. So that link is very clear and has been seen time and time again across the world.

Gayle Markovitz: In conclusion, if you could list five things to close the gender gap, what is it that we should be encouraging governments and companies or anyone else, policymakers, to do as they seek to close the gender gap?

Saadia Zahidi: When it comes to policy makers, a big aspect is care. And this is not just something that will be good for women only. This is something that will help all families. And that care infrastructure investment is actually a job creator as well, and therefore better for creating multiplier effects for economies. In the same way that governments are thinking about focusing on physical infrastructure, making it greener, making those investments because that's going to be better for economies in the future. in the same way, they need to think about care infrastructure and ensuring that that investment is happening now so that our economies can grow in the future. So one clear element is care.

A second element is creating the right legal infrastructure for women and men to be able to thrive in the economy. Now, that requires ensuring that there is no discrimination, that is not tolerated.

A third element is a more precise and customised focus on the economies of the future. If we want our very technology-driven economies to represent everybody, then we have to ensure that more women are going into artificial intelligence, into cloud computing, into data, and that they are a core part of how we design these systems for the future. And these services are now core to every industry. This is not just about data or AI only in the ICT sector. This is about data and AI use in every single sector, including non-profits, including health, including care, including education, all of the sectors that already tend to employ a lot of women.

When it comes to businesses, there has to be much stronger focus on ensuring that now, at this critical moment as businesses are rehiring, that they are have an eye to diversity, that they have an eye to gender diversity specifically, and that they are bringing in the best possible talent for the future and making a proactive effort to provide support to women that may need it as they re-enter the workforce.

A second element is leadership. Do businesses have the right pipeline in place to have women in leadership positions in three years time? In five years time? And that's not just about developing the internal leadership pipeline or about hiring externally. That is also about reaching much earlier upstream, going to colleges, going to high schools, and ensuring that women are seeing those role models, are understanding that they can go into those subject matters that they currently don't and that they should be able to find a good job afterwards. If they do go into, for example, a computer science degree. or if they do take more online learning, what does that lead to?

Gayle Markovitz: Just one final thing, because you mentioned online learning - that's been a bit of a game changer for for for women and skills, hasn't it?

Saadia Zahidi: Yes. It's been fascinating with our partnership with LinkedIn, we explored a lot more what is happening to women in leadership, and with our partnership with Coursera, we tried to look at who is really acquiring the skills for that future leadership. And it's clear that the segmentation between women and men that exists when it comes to higher education degrees is a little bit better when it comes to online learning. So more women seem to be going in, for example, more learning around technology than they would in traditional degrees. So more of them are getting STEM related skilling online than STEM degrees when it comes to universities.

Gayle Markovitz: And could we say the same for flexible? There's a lot of hype around the four day week, hybrid working for white collar workers is becoming a bit more normal since the pandemic. What's that doing to women's roles?

Saadia Zahidi: I think online learning, or online work, is an important part of the solution, but it's not the full solution. So one of the other things that we found with the online learning partnership is more women are going into courses that are taught by women than men are. Now, is that perpetuating stereotypes or is that making things better? And even after they've acquired those skills, are they actually afterwards able to find the same jobs, or is there still going to be a difference in terms of how they're brought into the company? Are there still going to be wage gaps? Are there still going to be hurdles in terms of progression to leadership positions? So that's just one aspect. And I think it helps open up more opportunities for women in remote parts of the world. It helps open up much more opportunities to women who may not feel comfortable in a class environment when only 10% of women are going into an engineering class, for example. But at the same time, it's not the only solution.

Gayle Markovitz: Given how complex the term 'gender' has become, how do you square that with the report's binary treatment of that term?

Saadia Zahidi: The report is taking a very binary approach to the construction of the index, mostly because that's the data that is currently available. That does not in any way negate that there are non-binary people and that we should be looking at what is happening to them when it comes to very specific aspects of access to health, access to education, access to employment opportunities, access to political representation. And that's a core part of what we are doing in our diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice work here at the Forum. And one of the key efforts we want to make is actually improve the data that is available so that we can say a lot more about what is happening to non-binary people across the world.

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June 12, 2024

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