Competitiveness and the Global Gender Gap

Paula Stern

For years, science and technology professionals have tried to bring attention to the lack of gender equity in the important fields of information technology (IT) and computing. Now, ten years after the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women recognized the need to promote gender equity around the world, the "gender gap" issue finally has arrived on the radar screen of the world's influential opinion-makers. This summer, The World Economic Forum—the preeminent yearly gathering of global leaders in business, government, and academia held in Davos, Switzerland— released the first study measuring the gender gap in 58 separate countries.

This report, entitled Women's Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap, uses "hard data" from international organizations and extensive opinion surveys to rank each country according to a number of indicators, including women's economic participation and opportunity and their political empowerment. The report's authors—Augusto Lopez-Claros, WEF's Chief Economist and Director of the Global Competitiveness Program, and Saadia Zahidi, Economist at the WEF's Global Competitiveness Program—hoped their work would be used as a guide for policy, with countries learning from those states that have been successful.

"Our aim is essentially to allow countries to identify strengths and weaknesses in an area of critical importance for the development process and to provide opportunities for countries to learn from the experiences of others that have been more successful in promoting the equality of women and men," said Lopez-Claros.

Topping the index are Scandinavian countries including Sweden, Norway, and Finland. While no country has eliminated the gender gap, these countries provide a wider spectrum of educational, political, and work opportunities to women than other parts of the world.

"These societies seem to have understood the economic incentive behind empowering women," said Lopez-Claros. "Countries that do not fully capitalize on one-half of their human resources are clearly undermining their competitive potential."

For years, WEF published its Global Competitiveness Report, a detailed assessment of the world's economies. International policymakers routinely cite the report as key to better understanding each country's determinates of growth and areas for policy development and reform. Not surprisingly, Scandinavian countries also rank at the top in WEF's competitiveness report. Countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt that score lowest on the Gender Gap Index rank correspondingly low in WEF's Competitiveness Rankings.

The United States, ranked 17th on the Gender Gap Index, fell behind many European countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Now, the responsibility falls on leaders in government and business to incorporate the WEF's findings into concrete policy solutions if the U.S. is to maintain its global competitiveness.

Nowhere is the U.S. gender gap more pronounced than in the influential fields of IT and computing. While women earned 58 percent of U.S. undergraduate degrees awarded in 2003, only 25 percent of computer science graduates were women, a decline of 40 percent since 1984. As the U.S. IT gender gap continues to widen, policymakers need to act quickly to increase women's and girls' participation. It's a matter of competitiveness.



The Honorable Paula Stern is Chairwoman of The Stern Group, Inc. a Washington, D.C.-based economic analysis and international advisory firm specializing in business and government strategy.