EconoMatters

Bridging the Gender Gap

Does Islam really limit the opportunities and achievements of women?

Credit: dboystudio - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • On average, richer countries rank higher for gender equality. Does religion/culture interact with this?
  • Do our stereotypes implicitly compare Saudi Arabia to Sweden rather than Indonesia to Italy?
  • Predominantly Muslim countries have larger gender gaps than non-Christian/non-Muslim countries (e.g. China, India).
  • A number of countries have much smaller gender gaps than their incomes and religions lead one to expect. Why?
  • Local cultural and political choices make a systematic difference in prevalence and size of a country’s gender gap.
  • There is every reason to believe that a smaller gender gap is a goal that can be achieved anywhere.

The World Economic Forum recently released the 2013 version of its Global Gender Gap Report. The report ranks 138 countries “capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities.” Countries are ranked overall and in four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Since the rankings are not based on female attainment but on the gap between male and female attainment, it may not be obvious that rich countries would, on average, achieve a higher rank than poor countries. But that is the pattern: On average, richer countries rank higher for gender equality.

What cultural aspects might one expect to be associated with the gender gap? Religion is an obvious candidate. Certainly the Western stereotype of Islam is that it limits the opportunities of women.

But do the headline practices in some countries — prohibition of driving in Saudi Arabia, murderous attacks on girls’ schools in Pakistan — reflect a religion-inspired gender bias? Or do they reflect cultural biases that predate the modern religious practice of particular countries?

After all, most Muslims are not of Bedouin heritage, just as most Christians are not Scandinavians. Do our stereotypes implicitly compare Saudi Arabia to Sweden rather than Indonesia to Italy?

In this case, the stereotypes appear to have some grounding in fact. Controlling for income per capita, it turns out that countries with a larger percentage of Christians are likely to have smaller overall gender gaps. At the same time, predominantly Muslim countries exhibit larger gender gaps than countries where neither of these religions predominates (China, India, Japan, South Korea, among others).

The Gender Gap in Six Large Countries

Calculations based World Economic Forum data

Yet even with three explanatory variables (per capita income, percent of population that is Christian, and percent that is Muslim) — all of which are highly significant — more than half of the variation in the gender gap remains unexplained. A number of countries perform much better than the statistical model suggests they will.

The Gender Gap in Two Low-GDP Countries

Calculations based World Economic Forum data

For example, the Philippines, South Africa and Nicaragua each has a much smaller gender gap than expected. Kazakhstan and Bangladesh, too, have smaller gaps than their incomes and religions lead one to expect.

At the other end, although almost all the countries that score lowest, given their income, are Islamic (e.g., Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) several non-Islamic countries also have surprisingly large gender gaps, notably Japan and South Korea.

The three graphs illustrate the actual gender gap and the gender gap predicted statistically when per capita income and religion are taken into account. White bars represent the gender gap ranking by the World Economic Forum (a shorter bar represents a smaller gender gap), while blue bars show the ranking predicted by income and the shares of Christians and Muslims in the population.

The bigger the difference between the height of the white and blue bars, the greater the error in the prediction. For example, looking at the four countries in the last graph, Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan, are predicted to have very similar gender gaps.

The Gender Gap in Two Pairs of Countries with Contrasting Gaps

Calculations based World Economic Forum data

Yet the actual gender gaps are very different for each pair. Nicaragua and Bangladesh have smaller gender gaps than predicted while Guatemala and Pakistan have larger gaps. These figures show that income and religion are not rigid determinants of gender equality.

The takeaway is that countries at every level of per capita income can and do have great variety in the gender gap: Local cultural and political choices make a systematic difference. As a result, neighboring or related countries — Nicaragua and Guatemala, Kazakhstan and Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh — may perform very differently on the scale of gender equality.

There is every reason to believe that a smaller gender gap is a goal that can be achieved anywhere.

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About Bernard Wasow

Bernard Wasow is Mexico based and a former professor of economics at New York University.

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