The Worldwide Gender Gap Isn’t Growing–But It Isn’t Narrowing Much Either

Progress is slow on the path to gender parity, but a few surprising countries are leading the way.

There’s a huge development opportunity in making women and men more equal. Reducing gender gaps around wages and workplace representation could generate trillions in additional economic output, a recent McKinsey report showed. Never mind that women obviously deserve fairer access to the economy, health care, and education.


It’s depressing, then, that the gaps aren’t narrowing more quickly. Yes, they are narrowing–by 4% over the last 10 years, according to a new report. But it’s at a pace of change that’s painfully slow in many countries. Fully closing the economic gap between women and women will take another 118 years, going at the current rate, the study says.

The World Economic Forum scores and ranks countries on economic, political, education, and health criteria, penalizing and rewarding countries for their gap sizes (not their overall level of development). As usual, the Nordic countries do best, with Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden in the top four places. Ireland is 5th, Rwanda and the Philippines are next, and the U.S. ranks 28th. Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria fall to the very bottom.

The top countries get near-perfect marks for health outcomes (measured, for example, by life expectancy) and education attainment. The U.S. ranks well on economic equality–e.g. on wages–but falls down for health (we’ve fallen from 1st place in 2006 to 64th place this year) and political empowerment (72nd place).

Ten countries—Austria, the Bahamas, Brazil, France, Finland, Guyana, Latvia, Lesotho, Nicaragua, and Namibia—have fully closed the gap on both the health and education. No countries get a 100% score for economic participation and political empowerment. But 14, including four from Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Burundi) and five from Europe and Central Asia (e.g. Moldova), have closed more than 80% of the economic gap, which is impressive.

It may not be feasible for a Sub-Saharan or Middle Eastern country to engineer gender equality overnight. The gaps are, to some extent, a product of development level, or the lack of certain policies that could be expensive. If countries don’t provide childcare services and family leave, for instance, it’s difficult to expect mothers to work. Other barriers are more cultural and legal–for example, in the way tax systems treat men and women differently. The report offers a section on policies and business practices to close gender gaps.


The report groups countries by region, giving governments local reference points. Saudi Arabia (134th place) may not become Sweden in a hurry, but it surely can look to attain the standards of, say, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which are further up the scale. In its report, McKinsey said closing gender gaps just to the best-performing country in each region could generate $12 trillion in economic activity. That’s a big deal, never mind the moral reasons for ending gender inequality.

See the full report here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.