Closing the gender gap

In 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the husband-wife duo, penned the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. They narrated stories of a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery, an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries during childbirth, a Zimbabwean mother of five, among others. Certainly, one Angela Merkel, one Indra Nooyi or one Dona Strickland cannot eliminate the darkness that millions of Malala Yousafzais or Nadia Murads suffer worldwide.

There have been various attempts to quantify the gender gap prevailing in the world, though it’s not an easy task because of data, model, and interpretation-related problems. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced the gender inequality index (GII) in their 2010 Human Development Report, which is a composite measure reflecting inequality in achievement between women and men in three dimensions: Reproductive health, empowerment, and labour market. The GII ranges between 0 and 1, with 0 being 0 per cent inequality, and 1 being 100 per cent inequality. According to the 2019 report, Switzerland (GII=0.037) and Yemen (GII=0.834) are at the two extremes on the list with India (GII=0.501) ranked at 122nd position.

The GII has been criticised for its complexity and difficulty in interpretation or understanding. Although it is meant to represent a loss of human development, the standard against which the losses are measured is not stated anywhere.

In contrast, the global gender gap index (GGI), provided by the World Economic Forum every year since 2006 to measure gender-based gaps, is far simpler to understand. The GGI initially covered 115 countries — the coverage has been extended to 153 countries in 2020.

The GGI is calculated across four key pillars — economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. A higher value of the GGI, in the range of 0 to 1, indicates less gender disparity. According to the 2020 report, the world has closed 68.6 per cent of its gender gap and, at the current rate of change, it will take another 99.5 years to close the overall gender gap, 257 years to close the economic gap, and 94.5 years to close the political gap.

Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden occupy the top four spots on the GGI list. Interestingly, countries like Nicaragua and Rwanda also feature in the top 10. The United States is at 53rd position, Russia ranks 81st, China 106th, and Japan 121st. Clearly, it’s a sort of reflection of the mindset of the society concerned — not their standard of living.

The 2006-20 data shows that, at the current rate, the gender gap in India — currently ranked 112th with a GGI value of 66.8 per cent — will be completely closed in another 50 years (i.e. around the year 2070).

Interestingly, at the present rate, the US needs another 242 years to establish gender equality. And China would need 1,612 (not a misprint!) years, although Mao Zedong, after the successful revolution, famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky”. Nicaragua is doing very well — the gender gap would be completely wiped out there within the next 17 years if the present rate sustains.

However, such uniform progress over a long period is not quite realistic. It only reflects the present situation. Technological advances and social changes in the moderate to distant future are very difficult to predict, even for the fiction writers. And we should always keep in mind that policymakers, exceptional social reformers, and other stakeholders can always fast-forward this process to ensure gender equality sooner than the predicted time limit.

Note that Lourdes Beneria and Iñaki Permanyer, in a 2010 article in the journal Development and Change, criticised the GGI for only capturing inequality in certain aspects of women’s lives, and, therefore, making it an incomplete measure of gender inequality. Also, the GGI considers equal weights of four types of pillars, which is again questionable. Kristof and WuDunn, for example, emphasised the political empowerment of women.

Often, a small push can do wonders. The story of Beatrice Biira, an impoverished Ugandan girl, is now almost folklore. In 1991, then six-year-old Beatrice’s life was transformed by a goat, gifted by a non-profit world hunger organisation. Her family could send her to school by selling the goat’s milk, and now she has a graduate degree from a US university. Kristof and WuDunn also helped us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential — the Cambodian girl, escaping from her brothel, could build a thriving retail business that supports her family; the Ethiopian woman could become a surgeon; and the Zimbabwean mother of five, counselled to return to school, can earn her doctorate and become an expert on AIDS. Such possibilities are grossly hidden. Will it really take another century to unleash them?

The writer is a professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

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