The U.S. Is a Great Place to Be a Female Worker—Why Are We Ranked 22nd in the World?

WEF_Gender_Top_25.PNG

American women still have a long road to travel before they achieve full economic equality. The wage gap is stubbornly stuck. We still have too few high powered female professionals. Workplace discrimination is far from dead. 

Yet, a new report from the World Economic Forum also offers a nice reminder that, even though we may have lots of room for improvement, the United States is still further along than most of the developed world when it comes to female economic opportunity.  

Yesterday, the WEF released the 2012 edition of its Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks 135 nations on four measures of equality between the sexes: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Overall, the United States ranked 22nd, which on its face sounds like a pretty rough showing (I've broken out the top 25 on the right). But if you get inside the numbers, and especially the economic rankings, they're much more encouraging. 

(A quick note: The survey doesn't care how wealthy a country is, only how egalitarian. So, if you look to the right again, you may notice that an impoverished nation such as Cuba, where men and women face about equally awful circumstances, ranks right alongside to a rich nation like Austria, where men and women alike enjoy fairly bright prospects.)

In terms of "economic participation and opportunity," we place eighth overall. Subtract nations such as Malawi, Burundi, Lesotho, and Mongolia -- because, let's be honest, it's pretty pointless to compare the U.S. with the developing world on these issues -- and suddenly we make the top four, ahead of the vast majority of industrialized nations. In no other country do women make up a larger portion of professional/technical workers. U.S. women don't yet earn equal wages for equal work. But the overall income gap isn't large by international standards. What's more, we share the top spot (with many other countries) in every category of education attainment.

Here's the breakdown of our total rankings. (More commentary afterwards).

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We lag severely on two of the four measures. One is a cause for concern, and one is not.

The category we can safely ignore: health and survival. While American women place 53rd on "healthy life expectancy," they still outlive American men by four years. They just don't outlive their male peers so drastically as women in other countries. This may in fact be a healthy sign that American men aren't dropping dead from war and disease. We fall behind Uganda on this measure., and frankly, that's sadder for Uganda. 

The cause for concern is political empowerment, which looks at the number of women serving national legislatures and running government agencies, as well as how many years we've had a female head of state. (Since we don't have a parliament, the survey counts the women in the Senate). On this score, we rank 55th. You could argue that this is a sign of the entrenched sexism in our electoral system. But you may can also tie it back to the economic problems women in America do continue to face, and which aren't picked up well in a survey like this. Even though females have managed to break into elite industries such as law, finance, and medicine, they've had difficulty rising to the top of these fields, often because many find themselves taking time off or slowing down for family. As a result, we don't have enough female surgeons or law partners, just like we don't have enough women serving in the House or Senate. It's fair to look at our lack of gender equality in politics as a reflection of the ways we still lack gender equality in economics.  

So we're not doing badly by the world's standards. But as I said, we still have plenty of room for improvement. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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