The gender gap will take 108 years to close, says WEF

At the current rate of progress, the global gender gap will take 108 years to close and economic gender parity will take 202 years to achieve. That is the conclusion of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2018, published in December.

Yet closing that gap is vital if countries wish to be able to compete in the fast-changing world ahead.

“The economies that will succeed in the fourth industrial revolution will be those that are best able to harvest all their available talent,” Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

“Proactive measures that support gender parity and social inclusion and address historical imbalances are therefore essential for the health of the global economy as well as for the society as a whole.”

The report gives a clear indication of which countries are most prepared. Four pillars are measured and ranked in the gender gap index: economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and survival.

For the 10th year Iceland is ranked as the world’s most gender-equal country, followed by Norway, Sweden and Finland. So what can we learn from them?

These four Nordic countries have above 82% parity in equality between men and women compared to 75.8% for Western Europe on average. At the current rate of progress, the overall gender gap in the region will be closed in 61 years compared to 153 years for Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The Global Gender Gap Report, first published in 2006, is a 367-page publication of which the first 37 pages are analysis and comparisons. The rest is a mass of Global Gender Gap Index Data and country profiles for each of 149 countries, with key data for the numbers obtained and the rank on the four dimensions in the global gap score.

This is a goldmine of information on comparative data on education issues. For instance, ‘education and skills’ measured across 13 education attainment parameters and another 10 parameters for ‘graduates by degree type’ looking explicitly for the STEM proportion of students graduating, and country investments in artificial intelligence.

Educational attainment

For a majority of countries, the educational attainment sub-index is the one with the highest parity score between men and women. In total 36 countries have reached full parity on educational attainment and another 49 countries have closed at least 99% of the gap.

In contrast to the economic opportunity and political empowerment sub-indexes, only 5% of the gender gap in educational attainment has to be closed. Even the worst performer (Chad) is more than half way to parity (57%) while the second and the third worst performers (Guinea and Congo) have bridged two-thirds of the gap.

However, average performances mask specific underlying issues, the report says. “In terms of literacy, not only is the gender gap large in many countries, but many women are still illiterate today. At least 20% of women are illiterate in 44 countries and in Chad (the worst performer) just 13% of women can read and write. Secondly, parity in higher education enrolment conceals lower participation among both boys and girls as the level of education increases.

The report has a special paragraph on ‘Assessing Gaps in Artificial Intelligence’, identifying “how AI is a prominent driver of change within the transformations brought about by the fourth industrial revolution”. The report identifies a significant gender gap among AI professionals as only 22% of AI professionals globally are female compared to 78% who are male, accounting for a gender gap of 72%.

Factors driving up equality

Margriet van Hek, a postdoctoral researcher at Radboud University in the Netherlands, who has researched educational attainment in 33 countries, told University World News that her research shows that women growing up in a country with a high level of female labour market participation and a low level of religiosity – indicating a progressive normative climate – do better in (higher) education than their counterparts from other countries.

“Especially in Sweden, but also to a somewhat lesser extent in Finland and Norway, these conditions have been present in the past, which stimulated Scandinavian women to pursue an educational career.”

Kaja Kathrine Wendt, deputy head of research and senior advisor at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), told University World News that the recently published European Union report, She Figures 2018, demonstrates that on the professor level, the proportion of women is lower in Denmark (20.7%), which was ranked 13th by the WEF Global Gender Gap Report, than in the other Nordic countries (Norway 27.9%, Sweden 25.4%, Iceland 26.3%).

Nordic countries are well placed with regard to gender balance in relation to students and at the doctorate level, but further up in the academic hierarchy, in business and within STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), men are still dominating and the Nordic countries on these parameters are no better placed than the EU-28 countries.

However, Nordic countries are well placed when it comes to including the gender dimension in research (scientific publishing).

“The EU’s She Figures 2018 report demonstrates several positive trends for Norway,” Wendt said. “Norway is in the absolute top league, having a high proportion of women in the councils of science and on the science council boards, with 54%, while the proportion across EU countries is 27%.”

“The European ranking also demonstrates that the share of leaders in academic positions in Norway is high, with 31% of rectors being women. This ranks fourth among the countries in the report. Among Norwegian deans there is a perfect balance, with half of each gender. The proportion of women among Norwegian researchers in total is 37% compared to one third in the EU,” Wendt said.

Stockholm Academic Forum on 8 March published She Figures for Stockholm Academia, showing that 10 out of 18 universities in Stockholm are led by a woman. Sweden has one of the highest proportions in the world of female-led universities and women account for 28% of all professors in Stockholm.

“At the Stockholm School of Economics only 27% were women 40 years ago while today female students are accounting for 45% of the total number of registered students. Only 13% of students at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology 40 years ago were women and today this proportion has reached 34%, indicating a development in the right direction,” the report said.

Labour market legislation

Göran Melin, a higher education expert in the Technopolis Group in Stockholm, told University World News that young women already dominate in universities around the world in terms of student numbers, and increasingly so.

However, so far that has not meant that women also get high-income jobs or powerful positions that are in proportion to their academic credentials.

“Norms and national legislation often form barriers to a well-paid and influential work life similar to that which men have. The Nordic countries do not have higher shares of female students than other countries, but the labour market legislation favours women's level of occupancy and their careers better than in most other countries, as it focuses on the individual rather than the married couple or the family,” he said.

“Therefore, generally the high education level of women is put to better use on the labour market in the Nordic countries than in many other countries. But it should be noted that there is still a way to go also for the Nordics, before full equality is achieved.”