Tag Archives: gender gap index

It’s a man’s world

If you can manage to cast your minds back to that long, long ago time of pre-Christmas and New Year, you might vaguely remember a big climate conference – COP21 – that happened in Paris (ok, technically, Le Bourget, near Paris).

You might remember it because on 30 November, the biggest ever gathering of world leaders turned up to inaugurate the conference – 150, all told.

Look, here they are:


Notice anything?

Ok, I know it’s sort of small and you have to screw up your eyes (what do you expect, with 150 of them; Paris is a popular place to come shopping-slash-planet-saving).

But actually, sorry, there isn’t much point in screwing up your eyes: you still won’t find many.

Many women, that is.

Where are the ladies, in this heart-warming photo of people who run our planet?

(out shopping?)

There are a few – eleven, apparently – but good luck spotting them. And in fact you get nul points for picking out Ségolène Royal, the French Energy and Ecology Minister, who (despite having stood for President herself, and being the mother of the incumbent’s children) does not run France.

But how come? With that hard-to-ignore reality of 50-50 boy-girl birthrates (oh, except in countries where having a baby girl is irritating, and we arrange an abortion after a scan or leave the newborn baby to die or systematically mistreat girls in families if they are allowed to grow up), basic maths suggests should be seeing at least 75 women vying for position in that photo, right?

Alas, no. According to UN Women and as of August 2015, there are only 13 female Heads of State (HoS: in some countries, a representative rather than decision-making role) and 12 women serving as Head of Government (HoG: often a Prime Minister).

So if you add the handful of independent/self-declared countries to the 193 UN member states, that’s about a 10% ratio.

Can you imagine it the other way round?

It’s bizarre: after all, 52% of the world’s population are women. Surely that implies more women voting than men. And, by the by, wouldn’t that also imply an electoral constituency more likely to vote for female candidates?

Well: no, on either count.


… and now for that driving licence

Firstly, without rehashing the suffragettes’ movement, a woman’s ability to vote is still not common currency. Granted, Saudi Arabia finally bit the bullet and allowed women to vote in December 2015, but we’re still not at universal voting rights (thanks to the Vatican city; only cardinals can vote for the Pope … and only men can be cardinals. Because, you know, God said so).

But there is a difference between de jure and de facto voting rights. Just because a constitution confers the possibility to vote doesn’t mean that women know about, or are able to actually post a ballot paper: and in countries where democracy is young or unstable, corruption or poorly organised elections can mean casting a vote doesn’t actually mean… well, casting a vote.

Secondly, research indicates that despite the popular concept of “women’s issues” (for example, a keen interest in which biscuits campaigning politicians eat, according to the BBC) women do not vote as one block – or especially for female candidates.  Voting patterns have moved on from days when housewives and stay-at-home mothers followed their parents’ or husbands’ political preferences.  Now women vote as men do: according to the issues that matter to them individually.

Women don’t necessarily vote for women, either, when a female candidate is actually on offer to them, as this survey found in Israel. Surprised? I’m not, actually. I for one would not automatically base an electoral choice solely on gender (even if that would be an influencing factor for me given a choice between two competent and credible candidates, one of whom was a woman).

(Interestingly, a startling exception to this seems to come in the form of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right party le Front National.  Le Pen took over from her father in 2011, and since then, there are three times more French women voting for the FN.  Is that because the party has undergone a mainstream makeover, or because its leader is now Madame and not Monsieur Le Pen?)

But of course, it’s not often you get the choice anyway, at least not at national level. In the USA, the electoral gender gap is explained through incumbency (if a man holds the contested seat, it is harder for a woman to run against him); the cost (easier for men to secure the financial support a campaign requires) as well as less media coverage (men being quoted five more times than women in news reports).

It’s difficult for female politicians to get beyond traditional portfolios, too. Only 17% of ministers globally are women, with the majority are still confined to responsibilities for family, education or health, reinforcing perceptions that those ball-/brain-busting areas of economics, defence or diplomacy are best left to men.

Interestingly, even when women are elected, they aren’t necessarily champions of other women. Although research shows women in local government invest in families, health and standard of living, there is nothing automatic about a feminist female HoS/G (who wants to be pigeon-holed as the eternal woman’s advocate?).

Soit. But no taxation without representation, remember: so how do we fix the fact that 90% of world leaders represent only half (ahem, 48%…) of the global electorate?

Through quotas? Obligations for political parties to field female candidates, or for seats themselves to be reserved for women, have done much to increase women’s political participation (look at Rwanda).

But quotas are controversial, as we’ve already discussed; and I think we all agree it’d be tough to impose a global gender-parity leaders’ quota for the world’s 200-odd countries.

Instead, then, it’s about making quotas unnecessary in the first place. Starting with, of course, education (of both girls and boys), and the freedom to form and defend opinions.

Alright. All that opinion-defending has me left me quite tired. Yes, please, to women in politics; I’d like to think my daughter will grow up and not still have to search for female leaders in a UN family photo like a page from her Where’s Wally book.

After all, as new Canadian PM Justin Trudeau responded when journalists asked him why he had  appointed an equal number of male and female ministers in his government:  “Because it’s 2015.”

True dat.


Positively discriminatory?

Here’s an oxymoron for you: positive discrimination.


You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a one-hit-wonder 90s band, or some overlooked Roman Emperor: Positivis Discriminatus (or something. Latin was, like, twenty years ago, people, give me a break).

But then, the Romans probably wouldn’t have set much store against positive discrimination, given their fetish for letting the lions have the gladiators that didn’t run fast enough.

So, definition of P.D. (careful if pronouncing the initials in French):

Look! There we are, ladies. An officially disadvantaged group, and as such requiring special opportunities to presumably make us less, or even – *holds breath* – entirely un-disadvantaged.

All those in favour?

Hmm.  I’m not seeing a universal show of hands.

There are two questions that have me hesitating about putting my hand up, too:

  1. Are women still “disadvantaged” in terms of employment, private sector representation or public office?
  2. If we think that they are, is “the provision of special opportunities” helpful or not to overcome these disadvantages?

Let’s ponder the first exam question. We have time, after all (no lions snapping at our heels).

Put the loaded word “disadvantaged” to one side for a minute and consider the simple fact that women are half of the world’s population, yet still only earn 77% of men’s income (gender pay gap); represent only 1 in 5 parliamentarians globally (the notable exception being Rwanda, with 64% of MPs female); and head only 26 of the top Fortune 500 companies worldwide.

Even in Iceland, top of the Global Gender Gap Index (which rates women’s health, education, political and economic empowerment) there is still not absolute equality:

That's why Mum's gone to Iceland?

So that’s why Mum’s gone to Iceland

And that’s for the countries which are doing well (the UK ranks 26th btw. 26th! Land of hope and glory?).

In the meantime, given current trends everywhere else, we won’t attain global gender equality until 2095 (so only another 80 thrilling years of this blog before there is nothing left for me to write about).

So it would seem the answer to the first question is a resounding: yes, or rather, oui, if you are French politologue Thomas Guénolé:

Not only necessary, says M. Guénolé, but urgent.  Hmm.

Let us turn, seamlessly, to question number two: what are these “special opportunities” for we underchiennes?

Alas, not a lifelong supply of free sherbet dibdabs, as you might have been hoping.

Rather, special opportunities aim to increase gender parity through one of two approaches: hard (legislation, e.g. quotas, with sanctions for non-compliance, like fines) or soft (“positive action”).

The first is self-explanatory.

The second is more nuanced.  It involves wheedling, naming and shaming, creating societal credos for employers or political parties who walk the talk.

Which approach works better, if at all?

Good question: and (surprise!) awful to answer.

The easiest difference to spot is the one that quotas bring about. Consider for example local elections in France: laws passed in 2000 and 2007 (financially penalising parties who do not put forward equal numbers of female and male candidates) have had clear results.

And Rwanda’s gold star on gender parliamentary parity, mentioned earlier, is another success to be chalked up to quotas: an obligation for 30% of all electoral candidates to be female.

But “soft” measures can work, too. Take for example the UK’s voluntary 2011/2014 Codes of Conduct which encourage (but do not oblige) recruitment of female candidates to boards. This campaign has doubled the number of women on FTSE 100 boards from 12.5% in 2011 to 23.5% in 2015.

Whatever the approach, results like those are not just good for the women in the roles; they are good for young women needing role models. Ambition is driven in part by our assumptions of what we can or can’t do, so seeing other women going forth and multiplying in sectors or positions traditionally dominated by men can only be a good thing.

Or, as IMF head Christine Lagarde put it,

“La marche d’escalier est tellement haute, qu’il faut faire quelque chose”


Alright, then. Sounds straightforward enough: slap on a bit of positive discrimination, achieve gender parity.


I guess that depends on your definition of job done.  Take your child to accident and emergency because they’ve tripped over a rake and banged their head, and the doctors will treat the injury.  But if we don’t want to see the same injury again, or other kids coming in with the same problem, we surely need to deal with the underlying issue: put the rake away.

(I know: analogies just don’t get any better than that).

The point (in case you understandably missed it) is this one: positive discrimination, especially the “hard” version, treats the symptoms, and not the causes, of gender inequality.

And thus can actually be harmful, for several (non-garden-tool-related) reasons:

  • For each individual woman owing her election/scholarship/job etc under a system of positive discrimination, who will always be suspected of being there on selection, rather than on merit. As Hayley Downing, Associate Director of Investigo, commented:  ‘While I am passionate about gender equality in the work place it is important to note that women do not want to be a statistic. I was previously offered a role with a company where the Managing Director said “we really want you to join our business as we don’t have any female Directors at the moment”. While it was flattering to receive an offer from a global organisation, I want to be hired for my skills and ability, not my gender.’  Well, I get that – don’t you? Who does want to be a statistic to serve the greater cause?;
  • For women overall, with the paradox that once positive discrimination legislation is passed, it is assumed there is no more discrimination to fix; passons à autre chose;
  • For the cause overall, if the woman benefitting from the measure is actually mediocre, and far from the best candidate;
  • For tackling the causes of the cause (as per the genius rake analogy). If we lack parity, there are reasons for it: what do we need to change? Parental leave? Gender stereotypes? School fees? Employers’ attitudes?

And yet.

Yes, thèse, anti-thèse: I still can’t help thinking that things will not improve spontaneously, all by themselves. And that until they do, a temporary bias is necessary, and (longer-term) beneficial.

So: all those in favour of positive discrimination?

I think my hand is tentatively up.

Is yours?