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Gender inequality: who’s tackling it?

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In 2013 the UN released the Gender Inequality Index, a ranking of 207 countries in order of increasing difference in the distribution of achievements between women and men. The UN’s gender inequality index rank is based on a number of statistics such as the maternal mortality ratio, percentage of women with at least secondary education and the percentage of female members of the national parliament.

Here are the top 10 countries in terms of gender equality according to the UN:

UN Gender Inequality Index Rankings 2013

Rank Country
1. Netherlands (most equal)
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Switzerland
5. Norway
6. Finland
7. Germany
8. Slovenia
9. France
10. Iceland

As you can see the list of countries adjudged by the UN to do best at eradicating differences between the genders are dominated by European nations - and particularly Scandinavian countries. There isn’t a single non-European nation on the list in fact.

An alternative set of rankings comes from the World Economic Forum who release their own Global Gender Gap Report each year. The WEF ranks countries on the basis of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

Here are the top 10 countries in 2013 according to the WEF:

WEF Global Gender Gap Report Rankings 2013

Rank Country
1. Iceland (most equal)
2. Finland
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. Phillipines
6. Ireland
7. New Zealand
8. Denmark
9. Switzerland
10. Nicaragua

Again the list is dominated by European (and Scandinavian) countries but with some notable exceptions this time: the Philippines, New Zealand and Nicaragua.

Yet another set of gender equality rankings comes from Social Watch - a network of national coalitions of civil society organisations. They base their Gender Equity Index analysis solely on the gap between women and men rather than women’s well being.

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Here are the top 10 ranking countries according to Social Watch:

Social Watch Gender Equity Rankings 2012

Rank Country
1. Norway (most equal)
2. Finland
3. Iceland
4. Sweden
5. Denmark
6. New Zealand
7. Spain
8. Mongolia
9. Canada
10. Germany & Australia (tied!)

By now you must have spotted a pattern - the Scandinavian countries take the top 5 spots in the Social Watch rankings. New Zealand and Germany both make their second appearance while newcomers Spain, Mongolia, Canada and Australia round off the top 10.

Luckily all three of these gender inequality indexes use scores that range between 0 and 1 so it’s easy to perform a quick meta-analysis by taking an average score. (Because the UN measures inequality, rather than equality, we just take the score away from one.)

Using a combined score here are the top 10 performers:

Combined Gender Inequality Index 2012/13

Rank Country
1. Norway (most equal)
2. Iceland
3. Finland
4. Sweden
5. Denmark
6. Switzerland
7. Netherlands
8. Germany
9. Belgium
10. New Zealand

It shouldn’t come as any surprise by now to see Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark topping the list but Belgium is a new arrival and New Zealand stands out as the only non-european country making the top 10.

So what is it that makes these countries the best performers in terms of gender equality? What specific laws, regulations and social movements have helped them achieve better parity between males and females than elsewhere in the world? Or is the narrow gender gap in these countries attributable solely to culture?

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Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark

These countries topping the rankings of gender equality has clearly happened not by mistake but by design. The Parliament of Norway passed the Norwegian Gender Equality Act in 1979 and aimed at giving equal opportunities to men and women in education, employment and cultural and professional advancement. It equal pay for equal work and the duty of employers to promote gender equality enforceable by law. But it didn’t begin there: as far back as 1918 and 1927 there was legislation to make women and men equal in matters of divorce, custody of children and the right to property. A law passed in 2003 requires that 40% of all company board members be women.

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Gender equality has been promoted through five pieces of legislation in Iceland since 1976. The Center for Gender Equality was created to administer the Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women and Men, passed in 2008. It enforces provisions of the Act such as the necessity for any workplace with more than 25 employees to have a gender equality action plan.

Finland, the first country in Europe to give women the vote in 1906 and the first country in the world to give women the right to run for parliament, introduced the Act on Equality between Women and Men in 1987. Among other articles it puts a 40% quota on female representation in all official committees and councils.

Unlike Norway, Finland and Iceland, Sweden has not yet had a female Prime Minister. However, the share of women in the Riksdag (national legislative assembly) is currently at 45%. Swedish law entitles parents of new children to 480 days of parental leave to split between them as they choose, with a bonus payment for those who split it equally.

Sweden’s cinemas have also introduced the Bechdel test which rates a film based on its portrayal of women. 40% of parliamentarians in Denmark are female. The Equal Treatment Act of 2006 is the latest of four pieces of legislation on gender equality to pass through the Folketing. Denmark provides 32 weeks of paid parental leave for parents to split between them freely (on top of a basic 18 weeks for the mother and 2 weeks for the father).


Switzerland is one of the most impressive recent movers on gender equality - just seven years ago it ranked at 40 in the WEF report. The Law for Equality between Women and Men of 1996 and a 2002 action plan by the federal government to encourage equal access to power and decision-making positions, to make professional equality a reality, to prevent violence against women and to guarantee equality of opportunities in education, have obviously had some effect. There still exists a large gender pay gap though and currently less than 20% of all national decision-taking positions are held by women.


Article 1 of the Netherlands’ constitution prohibits discrimination on any grounds, including gender. The ‘emancipation policy’ was introduced in 1978 and aims towards equality in parental leave; work, care and income; power and decision-making; and human rights. The government has also introduced measures to increase the number of women in political decision making - taking the number of women in parliament up to more than a third of all seats.


Germany also enshrines gender equality in the constitution. The percentage of women in the German parliament was up to 36% following the 2013 elections - possibly a result of self-imposed quotas for female candidates introduced by the Green Party and since adopted by most political parties.

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But in the boardroom the situation is very different: in 2012 only seven per cent of those sitting on executive boards were women. Hence a new proposal to force companies to up the percentage of women on supervisory boards to 30%, which should come into law in 2015.


Low employment and pay gaps are a feather in Belgium’s cap. The constitution was amended in 2002 with an article affirming the principle of equality between men and women, the same year that quotas were introduced for elections at every level - only half plus one of all candidates on a list can be of the same sex.

New Zealand

New Zealand - the first country to give women the right to vote - has ranked as high as fifth place in the WEF report, showing the positive influence of legislation that provides equal pay for equal work, outlaws sex discrimination and which sets out rights for equal employment opportunities. There is still a significant gender pay gap though and women are underrepresented in senior management. Nearly a third of parliamentarians are women.

So while some of the countries in our top 10 do have a long history of empowering women (by being among the first to grant the right to vote for example), the single most important common factor seems to be the willingness to pass pro-equality legislation.