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Has Gender Equality Progress Stagnated In The Last 20 Years?

The Clinton and Gates foundations’ Full Participation report shows how far women have come and all the ways we are not there yet.

“There has never been a better time in history to be born female,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in her opening remarks at the “No Ceilings Full Participation” event in New York City on Monday. However, as she, Chelsea Clinton, Melinda Gates, and an impressive roster of distinguished guests (including Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, the first woman president of Croatia, and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai) pointed out, the data shows how far women have come, but also how far they need to go.

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If you can’t measure it, you can’t change it. The scope of an issue as complex as global gender equality can be difficult to grasp. But the Clinton and Gates Foundations have compiled thousands of data points on the status of women in 190 countries to help illustrate the gains of the last 20 years and the gaps that still remain.

And while the report contains encouraging data, such as the fact that woman are living longer and healthy lives the world over, it also highlights how many areas of the world have fallen short in fulfilling the goals set out at the 1995 at the UN World Conference on Women. As Chelsea Clinton reminded the audience, “we can’t mistake progress for success.”

Here’s a look at some of those gains and gaps for working women around the world:

Women’s Economic Participation

Women’s participation in the labor force has stagnated for two decades, and only 55% of women are part of the global labor force, compared with 82% of men. In North Africa and the Middle East women are no more likely to have a paying job than they were 20 years ago. But, women in Latin America overall are now 20% more likely to be part of the workforce, and in Colombia, which was once one of the countries that was least open to female workers, women are 50% more likely to be employed than they were in 1995.

via Fortune

In the U.S., however, 66% of working-age women are employed–down from 69% 20 years ago.

Women Entrepreneurs

Women’s participation in starting and running businesses varies greatly across the world. For example, women in Uganda, Namibia, Ghana, or Nigeria (Africa’s largest economy), are three times more likely than men to run a business. But the exact opposite is true for women in places like North Africa or the Middle East, where men are three times more likely to own businesses.

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Sub-Saharan Africa might be the best place for women entrepreneurs, but the reasons aren’t that heartening for the state of gender equality. The report found that women in low-income countries tend to have high rates of entrepreneurship, in part because it can be an important means of survival. Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa typically ranges from 30% to 40%.

Women In Leadership

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first women president of the Republic of Liberia. On stage at Monday’s event she put the issue of the frustratingly slow progress the world has made in equality in leadership positions. She said, “The gains are clear but the gaps are clear. At today’s pace it will take 80 years to reach full gender equality… (and) more than 30 years to reach gender balance in decision-making.”

The good news is that almost twice as many women hold political office today compared to 1995, but they’re still in an overwhelming minority. For example, women occupy only 22% of seats in national legislatures (compared to 12% in 1997).

As we well know, there are very few women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies (5%), which isn’t a very encouraging increase from 1995’s number: 0%. Women’s share of board seats varies—ranging from 8% in Portugal to 36% in Norway—but falls well short of parity.

Click here for an interactive version of this graphic.

Paid Parental Leave

Good news for paid maternal leave almost everywhere in the world: Eight countries have enacted paid maternity leave laws over the last 20 years, making it a near-universal law. Every country in the world except for the U.S. and eight small economies such as the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga now offer paid leave for mothers.

Click to expandvia the Full Participation Report

While 50 countries increased the duration of paid leave in the last two decades, and 20 countries raised the amount paid that new mothers receive, less than half of countries provide leave for new fathers, and in many countries, quality child care and early childhood education remain unavailable or unaffordable.

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Meanwhile the “motherhood penalty” is alive and well across the world. It’s estimated that a woman who has to take time off to have a child will widen her pay gap by 14% in what the report refers to as “advanced economies.”

Unpaid And Unprotected Work

Women in every country do the majority of domestic and unpaid work, including cleaning, cooking, and child care as well as taking care of sick and elderly. In advanced economies, women spend twice as much time on unpaid work as men; in India, women do seven times as much unpaid work. As a result, they more frequently risk their jobs or work with reduced hours and salary.


Women are also more likely to be part of what the report calls the “informal economy,” which includes laborers on small farms, entrepreneurs selling goods in local markets, and domestic workers. This type of work is typically not protected by national laws and is often not covered by coverage of labor rights, minimum wage laws, or parental leave and retirement benefits.

Gender Pay Gap

Women make less than men in every country, but the reported gender gaps generally vary greatly, from as little as 6% in Belgium and as high as 37% in South Korea, with the average sitting around 15% worldwide. Not much is being done on an governmental level to fix the problem. Fewer than three in 10 countries have prohibited gender discrimination in both hiring and pay, and the pay gap has been slow to narrow over the last 20 years. Since 1995, the average gender wage gap narrowed from 28 to 20%.

Click to expand

Where Do We Got From Here?

There is certainly hope. Secretary Clinton’s opening statement is true: A girl born today in every part of the world is more likely than her mother to be educated, to find work, to live through childbirth, and to live a longer and healthier life. But there is much progress to be made on federal and local levels all over the world, from the a larger participation for women is STEM fields, to U.S. policy on paid leave to the barriers to education in many developing countries and struggling democracies, to access to contraception and heath care. Some of the stories of the women and men who are working to make those changes are featured at noceilings.org.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at FastCompany.com, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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