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America is Losing the Global Race for Gender Equality

The World Economic Forum has released its 2020 Global Gender Gap report with the dire conclusion that 257 years will pass before the world reaches gender equality. The outlook for the United States is even worse.

The WEF’s predictions assume global outcomes will follow the steadily upward trend typical of most countries—only more slowly.  But the US is actually losing ground, having sunk to 53rd among 149 countries in 2020 from 23rd in 2006, when the WEF began its reporting.

The WEF Global Gender Gap rankings derive from four factors:

  • Education, where the US is 35th, behind countries like Nicaragua and Botswana

  • Health and Survival, where the US is 74th, behind Angola and Honduras

  • Economic Opportunity, where the US is 26th, behind Cambodia and Burundi

  • Political Participation, where the US is 86th, behind practically everybody.

From a global perspective, the US has been a leader in women’s education. American women overall are as educated as men. Today’s young women are enrolled in universities 36 per cent more often than their male peers. But other countries have been catching up, so America’s overall educational parity, with a female advantage at the upper levels, is now the norm around the world. A similar phenomenon occurred in health.

This world map shows that most nations have now reached or exceeded gender equality in higher education. Some have exceeded parity by quite a lot, but most of these nations have low overall enrollment for both women and men.

Where the US has really fallen down is in economics and politics. When speaking globally, the WEF often attributes women’s unequal economic prospects to educational shortcomings.  As the above map shows, however, there is no necessary connection between educational and economic equality:  where women are the most educated relative to men (in the rich countries of the Middle East) the female labor force participation is less than half the global average, while employment among the least educated (in Sub-Saharan Africa) approaches gender parity.

Certainly the education connection does not hold in the US, where women advance farther in school, but not in their careers. The WEF argues that women make less career progress because they are not studying the “right” topics, particularly science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Theirs is a commonplace assumption, but it is based on a stereotype—that women are poor at math and therefore afraid of science—rather than evidence. The gender gap in math test scores closed twenty years ago; female undergraduates now study mathematics and statistics as often as males. Since the 1990s, women have earned half of all science and engineering degrees. The disconnect?  In common usage, the term “STEM” has been increasingly redefined to exclude the health and biomedical sciences, where women overwhelmingly dominate. “STEM” now only applies to technology and engineering, where there are fewer women than men.

Computer science attracts few students of either sex.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded are in information science. So, even though men are much more likely than women to choose this field, the actual difference (52,000 male students a year versus 12,000 females) is too small to explain America’s large-scale economic gender inequalities.

Tech industry surveys suggest that women’s underrepresentation is actually caused by gender hostility, expressed in sexual aggression and punitive attitudes toward mothers in the workplace. Women actually leave tech nearly twice as fast as they do other industries. It’s the men, not the women, in information science who need to change.

Barriers are not limited to the tech industry, however. Around the world, women’s educational gains have not translated into career advancement as had been expected.  In North America, professional women must have, on average, a master’s degree to get a job men can win with a bachelor’s. As you go up the ranks, a vanishing percentage of posts is held by women. And, in the upper echelons, the gender pay gap is even wider than in middle and lower tiers.

The Western nations have all these elements in common. But recent US trends present a dramatic anomaly:  ours is the only country where female labor participation is actually declining, after a steep and steady rise that lasted more than 100 years. Alongside that decline, progress toward closing the gender pay gap slowed substantially while childcare costs skyrocketed. For families, the economic tradeoff between a working mother and the cost of care is increasingly harder to justify. The impact is worst among younger women who are less educated—and this is where we see the biggest drop-off in economic engagement.

Though many rich nations (mostly Western Europe and North America) have seen their female labor force participation stall in the past decade, it is only in the US that the number of women working has actually declined.[/caption]

Because the US economy now draws roughly 40% of GDP from the work of women, the prospect of their continued departure from the labor force has some economists wringing their hands. If women’s participation keeps dropping, the economic consequences will be disastrous.

All these negative conditions are attributable to government policies and judicial decisions as much as they are to toxic workplaces and recalcitrant employers—and the outlook for economic policies favorable to women is not good. Four equal pay bills are currently languishing in Congress, due to adverse attitudes in the Republican-controlled Senate, though the gender pay gap is far larger in red states than blue. Most politicians dismiss universal childcare—the only policy proven to keep women at work—as “fairy tale economics.” Yet if the women who have left the labor force since 2000 came back, US tax revenue would rise about $90 billion, which, using Brookings Institution estimates, would cover care for 100 per cent of American families.

It’s the courts, though, that pose the danger of a total backslide. Since 2000, conservative Supreme Court justices have forced rulings that effectively negate the employment rights women won in the 1970s. Those decisions are now being used in lower courts to block persuasive sex discrimination cases, such as the Microsoft suit currently making its way through the system.  Because the right has been packing all the federal courts with extremely conservative judges, American women can expect to move toward equality at a glacial pace, possibly taking longer than the 257 years the WEF has given the world as a whole.

And that’s why the political factor matters so much. Despite the 2018 uptick in women’s representation, the US still ranks near the bottom of the global list on political participation. Meanwhile, the importance of working women to the American economy—and the looming threat to their inclusion—is ignored by the national discourse, which instead focuses obsessively on white working class men. During the coming election year, women voters will play a decisive role. They must point the public conversation toward their own economic rights, as well as win more government offices, for the sake of gender equality and the US economy.


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