Equality is supposed to be the United States' thing, but when it comes to women, the country is falling behind, according to a comprehensive global ranking of 145 countries released Wednesday evening by the World Economic Forum.
The U.S. dropped eight spots on the list to 28th place -- just above Cuba and below Mozambique -- for overall gender equality, which the World Economic Forum measures by examining publicly available data on economic participation, political empowerment, educational attainment and health measures. The Geneva-based nonprofit, known for its annual super-elite business conference in Davos, has been measuring the gap between women and men for each category for the past 10 years.
The U.S. fell behind on the politics front, as the number of women in cabinet-level positions dropped to just 26 percent from 32 percent. The drop offset a slight rise in the percentage of women in Congress. That's unfortunate because research has found that the more women that participate in politics, the more likely a country is to have policies that promote gender equality.
Considering the political situation, it shouldn't then be too surprising that we are also slumping on the economics front, as the report found. The U.S. fell behind there because the percentage of women working or looking for work dropped last year, and the wage gap between men and women grew, explained Saadia Zahidi, head of the Global Challenge on Gender Parity at the World Economic Forum.
Of course, the U.S. isn't a terrible place for women -- the ranking just looks at the gap in opportunity between men and women. That's why some countries that obviously offer less economic opportunity to both men and women are ahead of the country on the list. As more women have entered the workforce, U.S. policies on paid parental leave and childcare haven't kept pace. Nor have most businesses adapted to the new reality where women aren't at home taking care of employees' personal lives.
"It's less about a belief in equality and more about policies and business practices having to catch up with the reality of today's family structures," said Zahidi. These things were designed for a world in which the primary caretaker was at home. "That doesn't exist anymore," she said.
No country in the world has achieved gender equality, at least by the measures that the report examines. It will take the world 118 years to close the economic gap between men and women, the report estimates.
Top-ranked Iceland comes closest to equality, having closed 88 percent of its gender gap, according to the report. Women make up 41 percent of the Icelandic parliament, and in 20 of the last 50 years a woman was the head of state. In the U.S. women hold 20 percent of seats in Congress. And, well, you know about the presidents, we hope.
Iceland and its fellow Nordic countries lead the world on gender equality -- in part, because unlike in the U.S., their governments have made a strong effort to get more women into the workforce and help them rise to the top, largely by supporting moms and dads with paid parental leave (not simply maternity leave, but leave for fathers, too) and childcare. Iceland, the report notes, has the longest paternity leave in the world -- at 90 days.
"They haven't targeted women but have tried to make work-family balance better for all parents," said Zahidi.
Like the U.S., Nordic countries have a strong tradition of equality. But perhaps more importantly, Zahidi notes, they also have small populations and need to make sure that every single talented person in the workforce is able to get out there and work.
That's something that's going to become more important in the U.S. as our population ages.