The world’s best countries for women

Nancy Folbre

by Angelo Juan Ramos

Marking international women's day on 8 March, The New York Times reporter Nancy Folbre reviews a number of existing rankings that measure aspects of gender inequality such as Social Watch's recently updated Gender Equity Index (G.E.I).


International Women’s Day seems like an appropriate occasion to ask which countries do best by women — and why.

Obviously, the answer depends on how you define “best” — in absolute terms, relative to men, or some combination of the two?

You can choose from at least four different published rankings that consider some aspect of gender inequality that include the United States. None of them places us among the top 10.

I wish I could say which ranking I consider best, but they all have serious limitations. One consistent finding, however, is that public policies have a significant impact on gender equality, regardless of the level of overall economic development.

In 1995, the United Nations Human Development report introduced two measures designed to facilitate cross-country comparisons of the status of women. One, the Gender-Related Development Index (G.D.I.) takes as its starting point a Human Development Index based on life expectancy at birth, enrollment in schools, adult literacy and per capita gross domestic product.

The G.D.I. takes both absolute and relative levels of these factors into account, penalizing countries with a high disparity between men’s and women’s achievements. In 2007, the latest year for which data are currently available, the United States ranked 13th on the Human Development Index and 19th on the Gender-Related Development Index. Norway took first place on the H.D.I., but only second on the G.D.I. (Australia took the gold in G.D.I. rankings.)

A second United Nations measure, the Gender Empowerment Measure (G.E.M.), focuses more narrowly on relative levels of political participation and decision-making power, economic participation and earnings. The economic component, however, is influenced by absolute levels of income. As a result, low-income countries rank low. Sweden took top prize in 2007, with the United States in 18th place.

The organization Social Watch publishes a Gender Equity Index (G.E.I.) that combines elements similar to both the G.D.I. and the G.E.M., but relies entirely on relative measures, using a score of 100 to indicate perfect equality. This measure puts some less-developed countries (such as Rwanda) in the top category along with Scandinavian countries, with a score over 80; the United States has a score below 65.

The World Economic Forum published a Gender Gap Index (G.G.I.) in 2007 that combines quantitative measures with some qualitative measures based on a survey of 9,000 business leaders in 104 countries. They put the United States in 31st place.

Despite these differences, a clear pattern emerges. Scandinavian countries that have made gender equality an explicit goal and implemented policies such as universal child care and paid family leaves almost always land on the top of the list.  The United States lags far behind.

Efforts to look more specifically at developing countries show that several countries in Latin America, like Paraguay, stand out in terms of their efforts to reform family law and promote agrarian reforms that give women access to land ownership. On the other hand, many countries in Africa and the Middle East enforce laws that explicitly restrict women’s rights.

None of the indexes described above provide a complete picture.

As I’ve explained in more detail in a journal article, it’s easier to measure rights and achievements than obligations and commitments. Consider for instance, differences in financial responsibility for the care of dependents — which are quite substantial in many countries like the United States, where single mothers are raising a large proportion of all children.

As women gain more economic independence, they may lose some financial support from the fathers of their children.

Nor do any existing indexes measure differences between women and men in the amount of time devoted to unpaid household work or family care, or resulting differences in leisure time.

As national statistical agencies begin publishing data on these dimensions of living standards, researchers can move toward the development of expanded indexes.

If we want to make progress, we need to measure it as accurately as possible.

* Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


This article was originally published in The New York Times, March 8 2010