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The Surprising Countries That Are Closest To Eliminating Their Gender Gaps

That Scandinavian countries top the list is business as usual. But you’ll never guess the rest.

Increasing gender equality isn’t only an issue of fairness to half the world’s population. As the World Economic Forum emphasizes in its massive ninth annual assessment of the size of what it calls “the gender gap”–an index of female-to-male ratios in areas such as literacy rates, life expectancy, parliamentary representation, and labor force participation–in 142 nations around the world, it’s also a driver of economic growth, more representative political systems, and a stable, healthy, and educated society.

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The report is fascinating because it compares nations on equal footing. It only looks at the relative gap between men and women in each country regardless of that nation’s level of overall development. Therefore, a lower-middle income nation like Nicaragua, having closed 79% of its gender gap, ranks #6 on the global list, while the United States is only #20, with U.S. women achieving only 74.6% of the rate of U.S. men. (In this ranking, 100% means full gender equality averaged across measures of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. A small percentage means that on average, women are achieving at much lower rates than men.)

Though no country in the world has fully closed the gender gap, like last year and many previous years, the five Nordic countries dominate the top ten list, having all closed more than 80% of their gender gap. Yemen, Pakistan, Chad, and Syria round out the bottom of the list, with Yemen, the worst performer, having only closed 51% of its gender gap. What’s most interesting is the regionally and income diverse list of non-Nordic nations that make it into the top 10: Nicaragua, Rwanda (ranked for the first time), Ireland, Philippines, and Belgium.

The report has fascinating takeaways about where and how women’s situations are improving–and how they’re not:

Women’s Health And Education Is Far Outstripping Economic and Political Outcomes

While no country has closed the gender gap in economic participation or political empowerment, there are eight nations–Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, France, Guyana, Latvia, Namibia, and the Philippines–where women and men are completely equal in terms of health and survival and educational attainment.

Overall, women are faring far better in their health and education than they are in their economic opportunities and political empowerment. The 142 countries covered in the report have closed almost 96% of the gap in health outcomes and 94% in educational attainment. In contrast, only 60% of the gap has been closed globally in the area of economic outcomes and 21% in the realm of politics. Political empowerment metrics are particularly dismal: Only Iceland and Finland have closed more than 60% of the political gender gap; 37 countries have only closed less than 10% of it.

Change Is Slow, And Is Coming From Surprising Places

Only three countries have improved in their overall scores by 10% or more since 2006, the first year of the rankings: Ecuador, France and Nicaragua, all three driven mostly by improvements on political metrics. At least most countries seem to be moving in the right direction: 105 countries (of 111 that have been ranked every year) have made progress, and only 6 countries have regressed. However, for 77 countries, the improvement has been 5% or less.

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The biggest changes are coming from surprising places. For example, relative to its starting point nine years ago, Saudi Arabia has made the largest strides in women’s economic participation and opportunity, and Guatemala has made the largest improvements in the category overall. In education, Nepal has made the largest strides, and in health, it’s Angola.

The U.S. Has The Most Work To Do In Politics

Overall, the U.S. has closed 75% of its gender gap, showing a 6% improvement since the index began in 2006. This year, the U.S. is #4 in the world in terms of women’s economic empowerment, and for the first time has surpassed total parity for professional and technical workers: 55% are now women, according to the report. There is, however, still room for improvement: In terms of the overall labor force, women participate at 86% the rate of men, and out of 131 countries ranked for women in positions of “enterprise leadership,” the U.S. only ranks #50.

The report lauds improvements in political empowerment in the U.S., but the overall stats are pretty dismal. Last year women held 27% of “ministerial level” positions compared to men. This year that percentage increased, but just to 32%.

Latin America Is The Most Improved World Region

Since 2006, when WEF first began the index, Latin America has improved by closing 4.2% of its overall gender gap. The Asia and Pacific region is the only one that shows a widening of the gender gap (by 3.2%). The region also leads the world in improving economic participation and opportunities for women, closing 7.2% of its gender gap over the nine years.

Similarly, low-income and lower-middle income nations have made larger overall strides (5% and 3.4% improvements, respectively) over the last decade compared to upper-middle income and high-income nations (2.2% and 3.3%, respectively).

Nicaragua is in fact an interesting example. It is the top-ranking lower-middle income country, as well as the top country in Latin America and the Caribbean. More importantly, it is one of the most improved countries since 2006, the year WEF began the rankings. In 2006 and 2007, it ranked #62 and #90, but in the last three years, it’s been in the top ten. While its levels of female economic participation still leaves a lot to be desired (the country ranks #95 globally on this metric), it has completely closed the gender gap in the categories of health and survival and educational attainment. On political participation, women achieve at 54% the rate of men in Nicaragua–which doesn’t sound that great, but because overall huge global inequality in this category, actually puts Nicaragua at #4 in the world.

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There’s a lot more data in the report, which you can read online here.

As the report authors say: “Women represent one half of the global population–they deserve equal access to health, education, influence, earning power and political representation. Their views and values are critical for ensuring a more prosperous and inclusive common future,” the report reads. “Humanity’s collective progress depends on it.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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