What's the secret that allows Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden to take the top four spots in gender equality rankings, while the UK stalls at rank 15 and the US trails at 31?

Today, Laura Liswood, co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders, writes about why it is important to look at the shifting rankings of certain countries in the fight for equality.

In its annual measurement of global progress in the lives of women and girls, released October 27, 2009, the World Economic Forum reported some major improvements in surprising places. The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report-which, country by county, examines data indicating the resources and status of women compared to men-ranks Lesotho, for example, in the top 10, a marked improvement from its place at 16 last year and 43 in 2006. By contrast, the United States moved down three slots since last year and now ranks 31st.

It is important to note that no country in the world has achieved full gender equality. However, it is important to note that Norway has legislation that demands all public institutions "promote gender equality, and these efforts are to be documented each year." The top ranking country, Iceland, passed this type of legislation back in 2000 as the Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women. Finland employs an "Ombudsman for Equality, the Gender Equality Unit, and the Council for Equality" in its pursuit of gender parity. And in Sweden, there is an Ombudsman on Discrimination, as well as measures taken in schools and workplaces to ensure women do not face bias. Interesting how in the top four countries, all of them have taken an active role in eliminating discrimination.

Liswood explains how the remaining countries are ranked:

The countries, explains Saadia Zahidi, fall into roughly three major groupings:

* Group I Countries making almost no progress to close gaps (Yemen, Chad, Pakistan);
* Group II Countries making progress on health and education but cultural constraints create barriers to economic and political participation. Such countries as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are investing in health and education in girls but not getting the concomitant return on their investment as women are not actively engaged in the workplace and in the political process;
* Group III Gaps in these countries (including the United States and United Kingdom) have been almost completely closed in education and health; progress is occurring on economic and political participation. What is lagging is women's presence at the highest levels of power be it management of a business or head of state or government or parliament. Countries that adopt quotas for business or politics often see an immediate jump in their standing once these mechanisms kick in.

She then goes for the jugular:

Data collection alone can't make the sea level rise, but many political and business leaders hide behind the excuse that women must ‘make the case' for change. The case can rarely be made without information that proves what women may intuitively already know. And looking at a gender gap that has been indexed should give leaders pause if they are not fully utilizing 50 percent of their talent.

Why the lag between education/health and economic and political empowerment? One might have thought that once girls were educated and kept healthy then they would ‘naturally' find themselves in the workplace and in political positions of power. Power is probably the operative word in looking at this pipeline failure problem. Allocating health and education resources is in and of itself less threatening to the powers that be than relaxing control of the purse or political positions. Dominant groups rarely voluntarily relinquish their power.

Global Gender Gap Report: Some Gains in Africa [WMC]
The Global Gender Gap Report 2009 [World Economic Forum]
Gender issues [Research Council of Norway]
Gender equality in Iceland [Tea for Two]
Gender equality in Finland [Tea for Two]
Gender equality in Sweden [Sweden.se]