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The Numbers on Women: 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report

Today I am speaking at the Women of the Future Summit in London, an event sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Said Business School, and a number of corporations, including Cisco and KPMG. High profile events featuring some aspect of women’s leadership or economic participation, have become commonplace in recent years.    Women at all levels, but especially those in positions where they can affect institutional decision-making, need to be aware of the reasons for all this flurry of interest from governments, corporations, and multilateral organisations.

As an erstwhile historian of the women’s movement, I can tell you emphatically that no previous generation has garnered positive attention of this magnitude.  Indeed, past leaders have begged for the notice of governments and staged heart-breaking stunts (hunger strikes and the like) to pull public notice to their cause.

So how did this generation’s women come to be the cause of the hour? To resolve this paradox, you must know about the new information on the status of women.  It has been only in the past twenty years that international institutions have disaggregated data by gender and begun to build datasets on women’s circumstances.  Our generation is now able, for the first time in history, to compare measures of gender inequality across nations, to correlate those measures with other metrics on national well-being, and to judge the impact of interventions on behalf of women.

What has been learned through this process of data collection and analysis is now changing everything.  These data show quite conclusively that women all over the world are systematically disadvantaged, not only economically, but in their access to basic services like education, health care, and political participation.

We can now have hard evidence that is not an illusion, a myth, or a stereotype that women are a subordinated group.  Women are massively disadvantaged, in eerily consistent ways, all across the world, in developed and developing countries alike.  However, when interventions to even out these inequalities are successful, an astonishing cascade of positive benefits to whole nations occur.  Not only does national prosperity and competitiveness increase when countries educate their girls and employ their women, but other negative forces that drain resources begin to subside.  Violence is reduced.  Excessive fertility declines.  The disease burden is lightened.  Many believe that various forms of environmental degradation can be reversed by empowering women.  Perhaps most importantly, the positive effect on the well-being of the next generation is dramatic.

In sum, there is a ripple effect that comes from resolving gender inequality that is massively positive for both women and men, that is passed on through generations, and that is measurably beneficial for nations.  And that is why there are suddenly so many events, reports, and programs that try to encourage and cultivate women.

There are several sources who make these data available to ordinary citizens and several institutions have begun packaging the information around various topics.  However, my own opinion is that the best overview–and the most user-friendly–is the Global Gender Gap Report that is published annually by the World Economic Forum.  The 2014 report is being released today.

The World Economic Forum selects key indicators, many drawn from other sources, that allow us to compare items like girls’ educational attainment and female labor force participation within and between countries–and to do so with ease and in confidence that the measures are, indeed, comparable.  The WEF also adds a few measures from their own data collection activities, one of which is their “subjective” equal pay measure–a number that is, for my money, the best indicator of equal pay among many available metrics.

Another aspect of the current moment that is unlike any previous juncture in the history of the women’s movement is the ability for women in all nations to communicate with and help each other.  Now, having the data we need to understand how deeply similar our circumstances are, we also have the means at our disposal to raise awareness, demand accountability, and help each other.  For individual women who have not engaged with the issue before now, becoming familiar with the information provided by reports like the Global Gender Gap Report is an important first step.

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