Thursday, November 1, 2012

Minding the Gender Gap

Another one those global rankings came out last week that illustrate why I very much like living in Finland.

The World Economic Forum issued its annual “Global Gender Gap Report”, with the unsurprising result that Finland remains one of the most progressive countries in gender equality anywhere in the world. This year, Finland moved up one spot from number three to be outdone only by Iceland. Ever consistent, Suomi has seesawed over the past six years between either number two or three in this list of some 130 nations. The US dropped to 22nd place, between Canada and Mozambique, from 17th last year.

The ranking is based on measurements of gender equality in four categories related to health, education, employment and politics. And it’s good to keep in mind that the differences between a country and those ranking just above or below it are mostly very small. The big gap comes, as always, between the top and bottom of the list.

Considering the quality of health care and education here, it's no news flash that Finland is ranked number one in both “Educational Attainment” and “Health and Survival”.

What is even more encouraging is that Finland is not alone in achieving near-total gender equality in these two essential elements for a successful life.

Thirty-one other nations (countries as diverse as France, Uganda and Mexico) tied with Finland for the top spot in comparative health outcomes for men and women (score 0.9796). Unfortunately, the US did not quite make it into this group. It was relegated to the next-best ranking (with a very close score of 0.9792). The difference seems to be that in Finland, women outlive men by one year more than they do in America.

In education, 19 other countries, including the US, joined Finland in gaining the highest possible score (1.0000, which represents perfect equality). Before getting too heady about the appearance of progress in this area, however, we shouldn’t forget Malala Yousafzai.

With so many countries (almost a quarter of those surveyed) seeming to agree on the importance of educating women, it’s all the more glaring to realize how this basic right can incite raw hatred in some parts of the world. (Swat Valley, I’m talking about you – but you’re probably not alone.) Just imagine the kind of primitive, dark mind someone must possess in order to justify shooting a fifteen-year-old girl in the head for simply helping to ensure other girls can attend school. Girls in school! What a subversive concept! The fabric of society will be torn apart! Thankfully, such a medieval mindset isn’t shared by the rest of the world, and thankfully Malala survived the attack, as horrific as it was.

Back to the WEF report. The category where the difference between Finland and the US is the widest, big enough in fact to drive a presidential campaign bus through, is “Political Empowerment”. In this category, which is based mainly on the ratio of women in a nation's political leadership, Finland came in second (score 0.6162), while America placed a very distant 55th (score 0.1557), between Israel and Madagascar.

This poor result for America shouldn’t be shocking. Of the 535 current senators and members of Congress only 92 are women (in Finland it’s almost half), and no woman has ever attained the US presidency. If a county has had at least one female head of state, you can tell your daughter that someday she can be president, without sounding divorced from reality. That’s much harder to do in the US.

The only category where the US outperforms Finland is “Economic Participation and Opportunity” (a fancy way of saying “working outside the home”), where it ranked 8th compared to Finland's 14th place. (Mongolia is top of the world in this category – certainly a thing to ponder.) 

Finland’s weak spot here seems to be the relative dearth of female managers (score of 0.42 compared to America’s 0.74). This is based on a reported 43% of American bosses being women, whereas in Finland the share of managers who can boast of two X-chromosomes is a mere 30%.  

I guess I have to take the WEF at its word on this, though my impressions are different, skewed perhaps by my own experience of the Finnish workplace.

In my twenty-plus years of working in Finland, I’ve had a dozen bosses, of which seven have been women. That’s well above 30%, though I can easily believe my work history isn’t typical. In the high-tech electronics firms where I made my living, the documentation, marketing and PR teams I worked in tended to attract the more, uh, expressive sex (there, I said it). Especially in a work environment dominated by no-nonsense mostly male engineers, more gender equality is always more than welcome. 


  1. As long as we're not saddled with a crazed Mormon cultist or a religious fundamentalist in the White House, I think the USA will eventually enter the civilized world.

    We'll have to wait and see.

  2. There's also another side to this. Men show more variance than women by just about any metric. (It makes evolutionary sense for the ones getting pregnant to be the stable base and the risk-takers take also the genetic risks.) While men men the seats on the top, they are also the ones in the gutter. It also means that, achieving "equality" with as many men as women on the top quite likely also means favouring the majority of women over the majority of men.