The annual Global Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum is queen of the legions of government, NGO, academic, and corporate studies on women’s equality. Ever since it was first published seven years ago, the numbers-laden document has grabbed headlines around the globe and been treated with all of the unquestioning respect of an announcement from the Lancet.
Yet as the recently released 2013 entry proves, the Global Gender Gap report is a cultural more than a scientific document.
Though it makes use of hard data on men’s and women’s education, health, economic participation, and political empowerment in 133 countries, it is far from objective, as it is built on dubious assumptions about human flourishing. Any instance of women outperforming men is deemed good, regardless of how everyone in the country is actually doing. Setting aside absolute measures of wealth, education levels, longevity, and so forth, the WEF measures only the size of the gap between men and women within individual countries. All other questions about national well-being are irrelevant.
Under this inadequate framework, the Nordic countries top the charts in gender equality: nothing objectionable or surprising there. The problems arise a bit farther down the list. For instance, the Philippines is among the 22 countries that surpass the United States in the rankings: it comes in at fifth place, also far ahead of Canada (20) and France (at a pitiful 45), to name just a few places where women actually choose to live when they’re able to immigrate. The Philippines scores highly because women there are catching up to men on economic measures, outperforming men in education, and outliving them by several years.
According to the WEF, a poor country where women are forced to leave their children and families for far-away jobs is worthy of our emulation.
But the story behind the country’s rising numbers is not a good one. Poor job prospects there have long forced the government to encourage Filipino men to look for work abroad. In the 1990s they also tapped women to join the outmigration, and today women are the majority of the country’s migrant workers. “Even in the low paying Persian Gulf,” explains New America Foundation fellow Jason de Parle, who is finishing a book on how globalization is affecting Filipinos, “a Filipina maid often makes $600 or more a month…considerably more than a starting school teacher at home.”
In other words, according to the WEF and a credulous media, a poor country where women, unable to make ends meet, are forced to leave their children and families for far-away jobs where abuse is said to be commonplace is worthy of our emulation (the top-ranked countries are “potential role models,” says the report) because, after all, they are closing the WEF-defined gender gap. Never mind that women are wealthier, healthier, and better-educated in many countries ranked far below the Philippines: what matters is only the gap.
Worse still, gender gap fundamentalism creates a zero-sum struggle between the sexes where women’s advantage is always good while men’s is always bad. Take the measurement of “healthy life expectancy.” In keeping with its methods, the report ranks countries not in terms of how long women live, but in terms of the gap in life expectancy. Oddly, there is no disadvantage for a reverse gender gap. So, as John Edale noted on the Good Men Project blog, the report gives the Russian Federation first place on healthy life expectancy because its men die so much younger (55) than its women (65). Japan, on the other hand, sinks to 36th place because even though its women live to 78—13 years longer than in Russia—the men of the land of the rising sun have the gall to live to 73. And so it is that, as the Japan Times announced in its headline on the report: “Japan’s Poor Gender Gap [is] Worsening.”
Equally perverse are the education rankings. In 25 countries, we learn, women are now more educated than men. Those countries get a perfect gender gap score. Same for labor force participation rates, one of the benchmarks for determining a country’s ranking in “economic opportunity and participation.” The winning countries in the LFPR sweepstakes are Malawi, Mozambique, and Burundi; they have a lower gender gap than even the Nordics. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. In deeply distressed countries, anyone who possibly can, including a child, gets a job. The U.S., by the way, comes in at 40th in the gender gap in labor force participation, way behind such lady paradises as Kazahkstan, Ethiopia, and Botswana, though given the ongoing decline in American male labor force participation rates, perhaps we could catch up soon.
Gender gap fundamentalism creates a zero-sum struggle between the sexes where women’s advantage is always good while men’s is always bad.
These sorts of weird results are not simply numerical outliers. They reveal the report’s underlying indifference to both the interdependence between the sexes and the broader ecology of family and national life, an indifference which is unfortunately commonplace in the universe of women’s studies. It imagines that the world could in some sense be better for women when their husbands and sons don’t graduate high school or go to college, don’t have a job, and die young. All that matters is that women are building human capital in the service of increasing national competitiveness. The media, meanwhile, celebrates all of this as giving us the truth about “the best place to be a woman.”
To state the obvious: the world would be a better place if women everywhere were able to go to school, own property, run for office, not to mention, avoid death at the hand of outraged relatives when they are suspected of being unchaste. But that’s not because they will then raise GDP or satisfy technocratic formulas measuring gender parity. It’s because these freedoms are basic human rights that promote human—that is, both male and female—flourishing. The gap is only a piece, and a very limited piece, of that story.