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Big Think Interview With Saadia Zahidi

Question: What are global gender gaps?

Saadia Zahidi:  What we try to do is see whether countries are dividing resources equitably between women and men regardless whether they are rich countries or poor countries.  And so when you look at it that way what we find is that the highest ranking countries in the world—which are Iceland and Sweden and Finland and Norway—they’ve closed around 80% to 85% of their gender gap.  So even the highest ranking countries have not quite reached that 100% mark. 

At the bottom end, you’ve got countries like Chad and Pakistan and Yemen—and Yemen, for example has closed about 46% of its gender gap.  So women tend to have less than half of the resources and opportunities that men have in a country such as Yemen.  That’s sort of the scale of things.  So you’ve got countries performing extremely poorly and countries performing very well, but still not having reached gender equality. 

Question: How are gender gaps and empowerment for women different?

Saadia Zahidi:  You know, essentially what we were trying to do is see, certainly there are rich countries that are able to provide high levels of health and high levels of education to women. But then we would be having just basically a comparison from a rich country to a rich country.  What we wanted to do is to be able to see how are all countries—regardless of how rich they are—how well are they distributing their resources between women and men.  And so to be able to have a sense of the gaps, whether it’s a poor country or whether it’s a rich country.

We had a debate about, you know, do we want a feminist index.  Do we want to have an index where if countries are giving more of something to women, should they be rewarded more?  And what we decided to go for is a parity index.  And so reward countries up to parity and if, for example, in countries such as Sweden you’ve got 1.5 women for every man in university, that country doesn’t get extra points as compared to a country that’s got absolute parity in terms of tertiary level enrollment.  

Question: How do you measure global progress for women?

Saadia Zahidi:  We tried to look at very objective outcome measures.  So we’re saying we’re not looking at cultural factors, we’re not looking at policies and other environmental factors that would play into what those outcomes are, so we’re not looking at policies, for example, related to maternity leave. And we’re not looking at land rights. But what we are looking at is what are the outcomes, for example, on health and survival.  What’s happening in terms of women’s healthy life expectancy as compared to that of men’s?  What’s happening in terms of the sex ratio at birth? 

We’re then looking at a second category, which is educational attainment.  So what’s happening in terms of literacy rates, but then also primary-, secondary- and tertiary-level enrollment which tells you a lot about what’s going to happen in terms of the future of that workforce? 

Third, we look at economic participation.  So first, sheer number of women that are in the workforce, labor force participation, then we’re looking at some idea of what is the wage gap?  So not just the wage gap overall in terms of average incomes, but what’s the wage gap for similar work or for the same work.  And finally, whether women are making into leadership positions. 

And then the fourth category is political empowerment.  So what’s happening in terms of women in Parliament, women in ministerial level positions, women in the executive office?  Those are the four categories that essentially tell us where do women stand in terms of gaps between women and men. 

Question: What the biggest surprise in global gender gaps?

Saadia Zahidi:  Well here’s one really important fact.  When we look at gaps, what we’re finding is that in the world as a whole, at least out of the 134 countries that we’re looking at, 96% of health gaps have been closed.  Ninety-three percent of education gaps have been closed.  And then only about 59% of economic participation gap and only 18% of the political empowerment gap.  So what we find is that, generally speaking as a global average, women are starting to be as healthy and almost as educated as men.  And yet they are not being channeled into the economy and not able to participate in decision-making.  So that’s a immense loss in the global economy.  That’s certainly one, you know, very striking fact that comes out of the report. 

The second though is more good news.  And that is, you know, we are making progress.  So when we look at the last five years of data that we’ve been collecting, what we find is, out of the 114 countries that we’ve covered for the last five years, 86% have actually made progress.  So 86% of these countries are moving forward.  And out of those, some of them are moving forward very, very fast.  They’ve made gains of 10 or 20 percentage points in terms of closing their gender gaps.  And perhaps even more encouragingly, it’s not just the countries at the top that are making progress.  So it’s not just Iceland and Norway and Finland that are moving ahead, it is also countries at the very bottom. 

So for example, Saudi Arabia is one of the worst ranking countries on this index, and yet it’s also one of those that growing the fastest, that’s moving forward the fastest because of a huge investment in terms of women’s education.  The United Arab Emirates, another country that has made over the last couple of decades a big investment in terms of women’s education and is now moving forward because they’ve made a very conscious effort to remove the barriers for women’s entry into the workforce and then women’s entry into the political system.

Question: Why is Iceland ranked 1st in the 2010 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap?

Saadia Zahidi:  So, it’s not, by any means just Iceland.  So Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, these are all countries that for the last 100 years or so, as a part of their development and growth, have made social inclusion goals a very important part of that development.  So that has resulted in these countries having now not just very high levels of health and education for women, but very high levels of economic participation.  And a lot of that is due to conscious policies that make it possible for women and men—not just women—to be able to combine their family life with their working life.  And what they’ve ended up with is this virtuous cycle where you have not just high levels of participation, but also actually higher fertility rates than most of the other western European countries. 

So that is certainly one angle.  The other piece is the political empowerment piece.  And quite a number of the Scandinavian countries have put quotas and targets in place several decades ago in fact, and have now reached a stage where they no longer need that stipulation, where they no longer even need that quota because you do have women in very senior positions in government.

Question: Why is the U.S. ranked 19th?

Saadia Zahidi:  The United States has actually made quite a lot of progress over the last five years.  And so finally broke into the top 20 in our 2010 report.  And it’s a country that obviously has very high levels of health and education for women, at least according to the measures that we're looking at.  In fact, women are now as we know coming out of university education in greater numbers than men are.  The problem is that that talent is not being tapped into at the right levels. 

So yes, women and men are entering the workforce in similar numbers are women and men’s wages are certainly very similar at that very entry level, and yet when you go through the ranks of most companies you’re starting to lose out in the middle management, you’re starting to lose out at senior management, and by the time you get to, for example, CEO level, there are very, very few women that are left there. 

It’s a waste of the investment that companies have made in having those women for five or 10 years in their systems and then simply losing out on that talent because they’re unable to find a mechanism to allow them to combine work and family.

Question: Is there a generational component to the gender gap?

Saadia Zahidi:  We do see some effects of that, and that’s very visible in some of the economies that have grown extremely fast over the last two or three decades.  And what you’ll find is, countries that used to not be extremely rich 20, 30, 40 years ago, they have huge gaps in terms of literacy rates still.  And yet when you look at today’s current enrollment rates, for example, primary, secondary, tertiary education, not only are women and men equal, but in many cases women are... there’s greater enrollment for women than for men.  And essentially what that’s showing in just maybe one generation and sometimes two generations, you’ve got remarkable differences in terms of the level of education that women are receiving. 
 
Question: How has the global recession changed gender gaps?

Saadia Zahidi: Different effects for different countries.  So we’re covering 134 countries and not only are there different effects for different countries, but very different effects for different segments of society. And so while for a certain segment of society, the idea of a "man-cession" may be true, it’s not true for other parts of society.  And so it’s gong to have very, very different effects.  I think one of the more probably the most worrying effects is the fact that there will be less to go around in terms of resources and that can be attributed to girls and women’s education and empowerment.  And certainly when we think about, if we’ve got less resources and we’ve got to think just a little bit harder about what would be the most effective way of investing those resources.  And it really does come down to girls’ education and investing in that because it has enormous multiplier effects.

Recorded on October 13, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson

A conversation with the Director of Constituents at the World Economic Forum.

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