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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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In contrast to Cuba and Nicaragua, Burundi would improve its ranking if politics were taken out of the equation, but this just highlights yet another way in which the ranking system is a farce. Impressively, Burundi ranks 3rd overall in economic opportunity for women. Also in the top 10 are Malawi (4th) and Laos (8th). As the report observes in its text, there are a substantial number of very poor countries where women have little access to education but often take on low-skill jobs to make ends meet. Since a country’s economic opportunity score rests in part on the gender ratio in the labor force, the surfeit of low-skilled female labor creates the impression of equality. Burundi’s opportunity score also benefits from a survey of 110 Burundian executives by the forum, who were asked, “In your country, for similar work, to what extent are wages for women equal to those of men?” These executives—there is no indication of how many were women—gave their country a generous score. Executives from Oman, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Uganda, and Zambia gave themselves even higher scores. Executives from Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, and the United States evaluated their own egalitarianism less generously.

Burundi also benefited from the absence of data for two of the five factors that contribute to a country’s economic opportunity score: the percentage of women in leadership positions and the percentage of technical and professional workers who are female. Instead of assuming that Burundi scored at the median in these two categories—already a generous assumption—the report does Burundi the tremendous favor of simply adding weight to the indicators where data exist, such as the gender ratio of the labor force and the opinion of executives. 

Only thanks to such methodological legerdemain is it possible to conjure the conclusion that Burundi provides more economic equality to women than 133 of 136 countries accounted for. Malawi, Laos, Mozambique, and Ghana should be equally grateful to the report’s authors, because the same combination of misleading indicators, absent data, and favorable assumptions propelled them far higher in the rankings than they deserved.

For a very different perspective on gender inequality, an invaluable source is the series of annual Freedom in the World reports by Freedom House. Regarding Nicaragua, it says, “Violence against women and children, including sexual and domestic abuse, remains widespread and underreported; few cases are ever prosecuted. Additionally, the murder rate among females increased significantly in recent years. .  .  . Nicaragua is a source country for women and children trafficked for prostitution.” As for Burundi, “Women have limited opportunities for advancement in the economic and political spheres, especially in rural areas. Burundi continues to have a serious problem with sexual and domestic violence, and these crimes are rarely reported.” These few sentences demonstrate that the facts on the ground have a lot more to say about inequality than the most impressive collection of statistics and algorithms.

David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Ware Center for Security Studies.

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