Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Gender parity: Here’s what leading countries are getting right

Iceland is the only country to have closed more than 90% of its gender gap – at 91.2%.

Iceland is the only country to have closed more than 90% of its gender gap – at 91.2%. Image: Unsplash/Norris Niman

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

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Have you read?
    • Gender parity is now back to 2019 levels, before the COVID-19 pandemic reversed progress, finds the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023.
    • While no country has achieved full parity, Iceland is the only country to have closed more than 90% of the gender gap – and it has lessons for other countries.
    • It will take 169 years to close the economic participation and opportunity gender gap, and it’s crucial we do this for the wider global economy.

    2154. That’s the year men and women across the globe will be treated as equals, if the rate of progress stays the same.

    To save you doing the maths, that’s 131 years away, according to our latest analysis in the Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

    The good news is we’re now back to where we were in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic years reversed progress – with 68.4% of the overall gap closed. But this represents just a minor, 0.3 percentage point improvement on last year.

    Three of the four gaps we measure annually – health, education and political empowerment – have all seen improvements. But the economic participation and opportunity gap has widened – and at the current rate, it will take 169 years to close.

    Infographic showing the progression on the global gender gap.
    The global gender gap will not be closed until 2154. Image: World Economic Forum

    Lessons in gender parity from Iceland and the global top 10

    Of the 146 economies covered by this year’s index, no country has yet achieved full gender parity. But nine of the countries in the top 10 have closed at least 80% of their gap – and there are reasons they are leading the charge to level the playing field.

    Iceland is the most gender-equal country in the world for the 14th consecutive year, and the only country to have closed more than 90% of its gender gap – at 91.2%.

    It has closed both healthcare and education gaps – and has integrated more women into the economy and the labour force, including into positions of leadership and STEM professions.

    Government legislation and funding is crucial in this. Since 2018, companies in Iceland with more than 25 employees have been legally obliged to show they are paying equal wages.

    Both mothers and fathers are entitled to the same parental leave – six months each at 80% of their full pay – under a ‘use it or lose it’ scheme, which has seen more women return to the workforce after maternity leave.

    This and Iceland’s heavily subsidized childcare does much to alleviate what’s known as the ‘motherhood penalty’, which studies show makes up 80% of the gender pay gap. In 2020, more than 2 million mothers left the workforce, according to the International Labour Organization, contributing to a sharp drop in women’s labour-force participation.

    Global Gender Gap Top 10 2023
    This year's 10 gender gap. Image: World Economic Forum

    Besides Iceland, four of the top 5 are all Nordic countries: including Norway (2), Finland (3) and Sweden (5). Seven of the top 10 are in Europe, including Germany (6), Lithuania (9) and Belgium (10). New Zealand is in fourth place.

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    What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

    Prioritizing gender equality is far from being solely ‘a luxury’ for more developed countries. Despite being one of the poorest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Nicaragua is the seventh most gender-equal country of those we measured, with 81.1% of its gap closed.

    The three most improved regions since our inaugural edition of the Global Gender Gap Index are Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Why it pays to promote women

    In the face of ongoing global economic uncertainty, the most improved countries this year – following Iceland’s example – increased parity in the workforce, wage equality, and political participation.

    That’s because these nations recognize gender parity is critical for financial stability and economic performance. Increasing the number of women participating in the workforce and reaching parity at leadership level can help to address gender gaps in households, societies and economies.

    Iceland’s gender equality act, for example, includes a quota of 40% of women on boards.

    Only a third (32.2%) of senior leadership roles (Director, Vice President or C-Suite) at the start of 2023 were occupied by women, according to our index. That’s almost 10 percentage points lower than women’s overall workforce representation (41.9%).

    Women are coming back to work but they’re not being promoted into positions of power, and they’re not equally represented across sectors, with the infrastructure and oil, gas and mining industries having the fewest women in the workforce.

    Figure showing the representation of women in the workforce, by industry, 2016-2023.
    Healthcare is the industry with the highest proportion of women. Image: World Economic Forum

    As our report finds, a “robust gender strategy is increasingly seen as essential to attracting the best talent and ensuring long-run economic performance, resilience, and survival”.

    Not only is having more women in leadership roles the right thing to do, it can make companies more profitable, with one McKinsey study showing that firms with gender diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies who lacked that diversity at the top.

    Diverse teams will ensure that company policies – including parental leave – are shaped in ways that further support women in the workforce to continue working and take on leadership roles.

    The same is true for women in politics shaping national policy that supports women. Gender parity in political empowerment has seen substantial progress this year. A decade ago, only 18.7% of members of parliament globally were women – by 2022, this had grown to 22.9%. Around 2.09 billion people today live in countries with a female head of state.

    Concerningly, we’ve found the glass ceiling is even tougher to break for women in STEM careers than non-STEM, with less than half of those who start out working their way up to the C-Suite.

    Figure showing the share of women in the workforce, by seniority level and STEM occupation status.
    How the proportion of women drops as seniority rises. Image: World Economic Forum

    With technological innovation continuing apace, and as we tackle the challenges of the energy transition in a way that is both equitable and boosts growth, it’s crucial that women are equally represented in positions of power in STEM industries.

    We need a pragmatic approach to recovering and advancing gender parity in organizations and economies based on practices and policies with proven track records – like those of Iceland.

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