The global and local conversation about the economic potential of women and the foregone opportunity from not yet achieving full gender equality is heating up again. The last really big and prolonged discussion happened in the late 1970s, the heyday of feminist activism.
Perhaps today’s discussion is in reaction to the obvious demographic changes of an ageing population in OECD countries, a looming decline in the available working age population, and concerns over sluggish economies and the prospect of ‘secular stagnation.’ Perhaps it is simply because we seem to be stuck in a cultural system that values women less than men. There is no way to dress this up. The statistics are clear. We start out with roughly equal numbers at birth. We graduate at about the same rates. In fact in Canada and some other advanced economies, there are more women graduating from post-secondary institutions than men. We also enter the labour force in roughly the same proportions and that is where the divergence begins.
For some sectors such as technology and some occupations like the skilled trades, the divide is even starker.
The World Economic Forum recently published its 2014 analysis of the gap – the 9th year it has produced this publication. On most measures the world is not making progress quickly enough. In general, the global numbers are disappointing although there are some surprising bright spots. No country has reached equality in each of the four indexes used by the WEF. Canada and United States together occupy the top spot in an overall regional comparison but only because the scores of the 16 higher performing European and Scandinavian countries are reduced by the lower scores of the other 34h European and Central Asian countries included as part of the region.
Across all four indices, Canada ranks 19th. In 2006 we were 14th. Over the past four years we have hovered between 18th and 21st.
Canada performs best in education with a score of 1 – equality according to the index, in common with 24 of the 142 countries examined. On health and longevity Canada is a close second with an index score of 0.969 (but 34 countries do a bit better).
On economic performance, which uses an index with three components - participation gap, remuneration gap and advancement gap – Canada scores 0.793 – behind 16 other countries. On political empowerment - made up of various measures of women’s involvement in politics – Canada receives a low score of 0.223 and a rank of 42nd among the countries review. That said, no country has reached equality in either index or in overall terms but that is little comfort.
The implications for economic growth are clear. There is strong correlation and ample evidence to show greater that gender equality in the economy and in politics makes us all better off. Not taking advantage of women’s potential undermines competitiveness for both countries and companies.
To quote the WEF: “Some of the most compelling findings regarding the benefits of gender equality are emerging from companies. For example, companies that include more women at the top levels of leadership tend to outperform those that don’t. With a growing female talent pool coming out of schools and universities, and with more consumer power in the hands of women, companies who fail to recruit and retain women—and ensure they have a pathway to leadership positions—undermine their long-term competitiveness. And for those that do, the benefits of diversity are evident.
 The education index is comprised of measures of access to education and literacy.
 The health and survival measure includes sex ratio at birth and life expectancy.