As the United States prepares to elect its first female president, women in the United States will celebrate the shattering of the ultimate glass ceiling. And while the event is momentous, it undermines a critical point: the key to gender equality is not in electing women into government nor simply advancing women in the workforce.
It is in EDUCATING women, and then giving them the opportunities to advance.
Women in Democracies
The World Economic Forum (WEF) did a ranking of gender equality around the world. It considered several factors including: health, education, workforce participation and political empowerment. The Scandinavian countries rocked the rest of the world. Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden ranked numbers 1 to 4, with Denmark did not do badly at #14. The USA came in at #28, right in front of Cuba.
Why did the US fair so poorly? Almost singularly because so few women have been elected to government office, not just the presidency. A secondary reason was labor force participation and wage equality.
And which countries led the world in those two categories?
For political empowerment, Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba, all had roughly 50% women in the governments according to the Inter-parliamentary Union. The United States ranked #97 at only 19.4%. That was lower than Saudi Arabia!
Regarding women in the workforce, Tanzania, Madagascar and Rwanda topped the list, according to the World Bank, each with over 86% of the women in the workforce. Only 56% of American women were in the workforce in 2014, trailing Mongolia and Gabon. Quite a poor showing.
But are those factors – women in government and the workforce – truly indicative of gender equality? Consider the statistics where women truly fair poorly- the Middle East.
Women in the Middle East
The position of women in the Middle East is much worse than in the western democracies. According to the WEF, the MENA region had by far the worst gender gap relative to any region. The exception was Israel, which while being in the heart of the Middle East, resembled the world’s democracies much more than its neighbors.
In the 1000-mile region around Israel, Sudan (yes, that Sudan) led the region in the percentage of governmental positions held by women. One would therefore imagine that women fair the best in Sudan, if that is a metric for scoring gender equality.
Nope. Sudan treat women horribly.
According to a 2013 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, Sudan “allows for domestic abuse, child marriage and marital rape. Sexual violence is common and often goes unpunished.” It is estimated that over 12 million women have undergone genital mutilation in Sudan, and article 152 of the penal code justifies arresting and flogging women just for the way they dress.
Clearly not a good correlation between women in government and gender equality.
When it comes to women’s participation in the workforce, Israel led the region, just ahead of Cyprus. At the other extreme, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Jordan had almost no women working, which would suggest that the workforce is a logical barometer of gender equality.
However, consider that Tanzania had the highest percentage of women in the workforce in the world, and only obtaining a ranking by the WEF of #49 overall. The low ranking reflected the fact that almost no women in the country received proper education and their literacy rate was extremely low. So while women owned businesses and were in the workforce, they made a fraction of what men earned.
So workforce participation is also not a simple straight reflection of gender equality.
As described above, a high percentage of women in the workforce and in government does not yield a society which fully respects women and provides gender equality. Women must have a proper education – on par with men – to properly achieve equality.
Not surprisingly, countries that deny girls a proper education have a terrible record regarding women’s rights. The worst offending countries are in southeast Asia and include: India; Cambodia; Pakistan; Nepal and Afghanistan. These countries dominate the world in acid attacks against women that leave women as “walking dead” for dishonoring their families. They also are among the leaders of honor killings of women.
But a proper education in itself is not a pathway to gender equality. Consider Saudi Arabia, which receives high marks for educating women, but then does not allow women to progress in society. They are prohibited from driving or going out without a male escort. Women are discouraged from working and have zero political empowerment.
The key for gender equality is education-plus. A proper education and an ability to be a full participating part of society.
The education+ format is what helped Israel stand apart from the rest of the MENA region.Overall, the ranking for MENA were:
- Israel #53
- Kuwait #117
- UAE #119
- Qatar #122
- Bahrain #123
- and it went downhill from there
How did Israel’s #53 ranking fair on the world stage? Ahead of:
- Singapore #54
- Croatia #59
- El Salvador #62
- Chile #73
- Czech Republic #81
- Brazil #85
- Greece #87
Israel achieved the relatively high ranking because of education+.
Israel ranked #1 in the world when it comes to women enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary schools. It also ranked #1 in terms of women in technical professions (not surprisingly, because of the terrific education).
Beyond the pure figures, how does Israel treat women? Consider the report from the European Union (no friend of Israel) that concluded in a report:
“International rankings of women’s equality rank Israel well among the countries in the EuroMediterranean region. Women are increasingly represented across all levels of civil society, spanning the political, legislative and judicial systems, government corporations, the general labour market and the military. Workplace laws are progressive and women-friendly and Gender Based Violence (GBV) in terms of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage and killings in the name of “family honour” in Israel is comparatively low internationally.
Programmes to advance the rights of women have been promoted at all levels of government and civil society. With respect to women in the workplace, the state established the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) to monitor labour law compliance. It has allocated increased funding to subsidize child care centres to allow more women with small children to re-enter the workforce, hosted awareness and educational programs about proper workplace practices, launched a website with information about women’s issues, offered training and professional guidance courses to women, and held seminars for teachers on how to encourage girls to excel in mathematics and exact sciences.”
An excellent example of the fruits that come from education+
With the election of Hillary Clinton, the United States will jump in the WEF ranking considerably. While the bump in ranking is nice, the US should be proud of the long history of promoting top quality education for women.
Even more, people should not lose sight that the key to gender parity does not lie with electing a woman as president, but by ensuring that women have a great education and the opportunities to pursue any vocation of their choosing.
It is a shame that the United Nations missed delivering the world that important message as it named the female comic book hero Wonder Woman as its Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Although it is nice that Wonder Woman is played by a proud Israeli!
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