Where in the world are women thriving? The best places in the world allow women to prosper through equal access to health care, education, work and political decision-making. International rankings by the World Economic Forum and the United Nations shed light on the brightest and darkest corners of the world for women.
An equal share of prosperity
Women are gaining ground in health care and education, but still lack the political and economical clout of their male counterparts. The WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2011 finds near parity worldwide in access to health care and education, yet wide disparities in economic and political participation. Overall, less than two-thirds of the economic gap (59 percent) and only a fifth of the political leadership gap has been closed.
The mixed result indicates that while many nations have made strides in educating women, they have yet to integrate educated women into public life.
"While women are starting to be as healthy and as educated as men, they are clearly not being channeled into the economy and into decision-making structures in the same numbers," said Saadia Zahidi, senior director at the World Economic Forum and an author of the Global Gender Gap Report.
Best countries for women to live and work
The best countries for women have made the necessary investment in women's well-being and removed barriers to economic and political participation. Women enjoy equal access to education at all levels, from primary school to college. Professionally, they earn equal pay for equal work, have equal income levels and assume technical and management roles.
In addition, the best countries for women to live and work also offer high development and economic diversity. The Global Gender Gap Report tracks only the relative performance of men and women, not their general well-being. Thus the Global Gender Gap top 10 can include the likes of Lesotho (#9), which ranks near the bottom in terms of per capita GDP (163 of 193, CIA World Factbook) and income equality (.63 U.N. Gini index, where 1 is perfect inequality), and is listed as a country of "low human development" by the U.N.
The following countries feature diverse, vibrant economies as open to women as to men.
Scandinavian countries are the closest thing to utopia for women. Of them, Norway stands out for its top economic scores as well as its #2 position in the Global Gender Gap Index. Norway has a low Gini score of .26, indicating relative income equality, and ranks fourth worldwide in GDP per capita (IMF, World Bank). The country ranks #1 on the UN Human Development Index, with a near perfect score in standard of living, education, literacy, life expectancy and child welfare.
Switzerland leads continental Europe on the WEF Index, coming in at #10. The country also bears solid economic credentials: 8th worldwide in terms of GDP per capita and a relatively low income inequality score of .34. Women can count on perfect or near parity in educational attainment and health, as well as in proportion of professionals and technical workers. Only in wage equality and leadership positions do significant gender gaps remain. That said, Switzerland has been steadily improving its record since 2006, and is the Global Gender Gap Index's 8th most improved country.
3. United States
The self-described land of opportunity does live up to its ideals, for the most part. The nation's #17 rank reflects a mixed picture of strong educational attainment and business leadership, yet low perceived wage equality. The U.S.' development and economic indicators point to strong opportunity. The HDI index places the United States fourth worldwide, with a #7-ranking GDP. Income inequality is a moderate .41.
The economy of this Baltic state has come a long way since the Soviet era; today, Estonia has the highest GDP per capita among former Soviet states and a respectable 44th position worldwide. The U.N. counts Estonia among its countries with "very high" human development, and the country was admitted to the E.U. in 2004. Estonia ranks 52 in terms of gender equality, with perfect parity in the professional and technical workforce and educational attainment, as well as labor force participation. Political empowerment is the nation's weak point, however.
5. Costa Rica
Women are living the good life in the land of "Pura Vida." Costa Rica leads Latin America on several indices of prosperity and social equality. The country is fifth in the region (25th overall) on the Global Gender Gap Index, and seventh in the region on the Human Development Index (69th overall, "high development"). Costa Rica's strengths include political empowerment (#1 in Latin America) and a perfect score in educational attainment.
On the other end of the spectrum are countries that either lack economic opportunity or set up obstacles to women's economic and political engagement. Obstacles include poor education or health resources, or discrimination in employment or political representation. Countries with the worst record on women's rights and poor economic prospects overall include:
Yemen places dead last worldwide, both in the WEF Global Gender Gap Index and the Global Competitiveness Index. It is the only country to have closed less than 50 percent of its gender gap.
Chad suffers from one of the largest gender gaps and lowest human development in the world. The country has the worst record in educating women at all levels, from basic literacy through secondary school and college. Without this fundamental stepping stone to opportunity, women have no chance to achieve economic and political empowerment.
Given its economic might, Japan should rank among the best places for women to live. But despite a very high human development ranking (11th) and a GDP ranking in the 20s, Japan excludes women from economic and political participation. Women are poorly represented in both business and political leadership roles, and income and wage equality scores are below average. By closing the gender gap in employment, Japan could boost GDP by as much as 16 percent, according to a UN report (UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Countries).
India's rapidly growing economy should add up to a success story, but WEF indicators show that women have not shared in the country's prosperity. Low scores in educational attainment and economic participation give India a failing grade of .619, the worst of the BRIC countries.
Guatemala ranks the lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean due to low levels of female education and as a result, absence in the political and economic realms. Guatemala also ranks as the second least developed country in the Americas, and suffers from debilitating income inequality (Gini coefficient, .54).
Achieving gender equality should be a top priority for countries--only if women are educated and engaged economically and politically does a nation tap its full potential. The past five years have seen dramatic gains in education and healthcare access for women. By 2016, policymakers hope to see the fruits of this investment in increased political and professional empowerment for women.