The Magazine

Where Is It Good to Be a Woman?

Don’t ask the Davos forum.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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For just a moment, let’s pretend the GOP really were waging a “war on women.” Where would you go to find less inequality and chauvinism? According to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, three of the best options for women seeking greater equality are Cuba, Nicaragua, and Burundi.

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Best known for its annual meeting, where the wealthy hobnob with the famous and the powerful, the forum is also a think tank of sorts, publishing reports on a wide range of subjects ranging from intellectual property to foreign investment and “entrepreneurial ecosystems.”

Since 2006, the Davos forum has also published an annual report on the “Global Gender Gap,” which now ranks 136 countries on how close they have come to achieving true equality between the sexes. The rankings are based on 14 types of data, collected from official sources such as the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and even the CIA World Factbook. The authors include Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard.

The question is, with such a wealth of data and intellectual prowess at their disposal, how did the authors arrive at the conclusion that the United States ranks 23rd in terms of closing the gender gap, whereas Nicaragua is 10th, Cuba 15th, and Burundi just edges us out, coming in 22nd? I contacted both Tyson and Hausmann to inquire about the study’s counterintuitive results. Both of them referred me to Saadia Zahidi, a senior director at the Forum as well as coauthor of the gender gap report. Zahidi committed to providing additional information, although none has yet arrived. Thus, I had to figure out for myself why advanced statistical analysis might indicate that the women of Cuba, Nicaragua and Burundi face less discrimination than those in the United States

The short answer is that the forum employed an indefensible methodology, although its shortcomings have eluded almost every journalist who has reported on the results. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof labeled the report “embarrassing.” Forbes called it “alarming.” USA Today duly reported that we have fallen behind South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines. The Huffington Post ran several columns on the report, one of which praised the authors’ credibility and blamed “deeply rooted gender stereotypes” for America’s low ranking.

As it turns out, the greatest source of distortion in the index is the inordinate weight given to the number of women in legislatures and cabinets as an indicator of “political empowerment.” This weighting is peculiar, especially given that there is no differentiation between democracies such as Canada (ranked 20th) and dictatorships such as Cuba, where one man decides how many women will serve in the National Assembly of People’s Power. As it turns out, 49 percent of deputies in the assembly are women, as well as 23 percent of Cuba’s ministers. If not for Raul Castro’s personal interest in the appearance of equality, Cuba’s overall ranking would likely be in the mid-60s, where it ranks in terms of economic opportunities for women. In Nicaragua, which has become progressively less free under President Daniel Ortega (formerly its unelected dictator), the ruling Sandinista party has also made a point of ensuring that women are well represented in the National Assembly and the cabinet. Discounting this fact, Nicaragua’s overall ranking would likely be closer to 91st, where it ranks in terms of economic opportunity for women. By contrast, the United States ranks 6th in terms of economic opportunity, outpacing every wealthy country except Norway.

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