Women, Equality, Work and Statistics

A reader sent along an article recently with a provocative headline “U.S. not in top 60 nations for equality for working women“, along with a request for my opinion. As a working woman I was of course immediately interested in which 60ish countries were ahead of us, so I took a look. The article itself is based on a report from the World Bank called “Women, Equality and the Law 2019” which can be found here. It looks at laws in 8 different areas that impact women’s equality in the workplace, and assigns countries a score based on whether they have them or not. The areas looked at were:

  • Going places: constraints on freedom of movement
  • Starting a job: analyzes laws affecting women’s decision to work
  • Getting paid: Measures laws and regulations affecting women’s pay
  • Getting married: Assesses legal constraints
  • Having children: Examines laws affecting women’s ability to work after having children
  • Running a business: Analyzes constraints to women starting and running businesses
  • Managing assets: Considers gender differences in property and inheritance
  • Getting a pension: Assesses laws affecting the size of a woman’s pension

Given this approach, it seems that the initial headline was a little misleading as to what this study actually found. This study looks only at the existence of laws, not whether they are enforced or not or actual equality for women. Headline writers gonna headline, I guess. The article itself was better, as it covered the basics of the report and why legal equality is important. Snark aside, I would absolutely prefer to live in a country that gave me the legal right to sign a contract or inherit property over one that didn’t have such a law, even if the law was imperfectly enforced. So where did the US fall down? Well, we had a “no” on 6 different questions, which gave us a score of 83.75. These were in three different categories:

  • Getting paid: “Does the law mandate equal renumeration for work of equal value”, the US got a “no”
  • Getting a pension: “Does the law establish explicit pension credits for periods of childcare?”, the US got a “no”
  • Having children, we had “no” on 4 questions:
    • Is there paid leave of at least 14 weeks available to women?
    • Does the government pay 100% of maternity leave benefits, or parental leave benefits (where maternity leave is unavailable)?
    • Is there paid paternity leave?
    • Is there paid parental leave?

Now this struck me as interesting. Our biggest ding was in the one category where they also asked about men’s legal rights, i.e. paternity leave. In other words, the US got marked as unequal under the law because men and women were equal under the law, but in the wrong direction. I can see where they were going with this, but it’s an interesting paradox. I was curious about their justification for putting these laws up there along with the other ones, so I read the explanation they provided. From page 6 of the report: “Women are more likely to return to work if the law mandates maternity leave (Berger and Waldfogel 2004). Though evidence on the impact of paternity and parental leave is mixed, parental leave coverage encouraged women to return to work in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan (Waldfogel, Higuchi and Abe 1999).” To note, this was the only criteria they included where they explicitly stated the evidence was mixed. Now as part of this report, the World Bank had stated that legal equality was correlated with equal incomes and equal workforce participation, and showed this graph to support its claim: Now this graph struck me as interesting because while it does show a nice correlation (that they explicitly remind everyone may not equal causation), the correlation for countries scoring above the mid-70s is much less robust. While workforce participation for women in countries earning a perfect score is very high (left chart), it’s interesting to note that the pay ratio for men and women in those countries goes anywhere from the 50 to 80% range. I looked up the individual numbers for the 6 countries getting a perfect score (Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden) and the US, and found this. The labor force participation ratio and the F/M pay ratio are from the reports here. I added the other metrics they put under “Economic Opportunity and Participation” just for fun.

Country USA BEL DNK FRA LVA LUX SWE
Labor Force Participation .86 .87 .93 .90 .92 .83 .95
Wage Equality .65 .71 .73 .48 .67 .71 .72
Income Ratio .65 .65 .67 .72 .70 1.0 .78
Legislators, Senior Officials,
Managers
.77 .48 .37 .46 .80 .21 .65
Professional and Technical
Workers
1.33 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.93 .93 1.09
Total Economic Participation
and Opportunity Score
.75 .73 .74 .68 .79 .75 .80

So out of the 6 countries with perfect scores in legal equality, 2 have overall economic participation/opportunity scores higher than the US, 1 is equal, and 3 are lower. Many countries that have high scores end up with high numbers of women in the workforce, but low numbers in positions of power (2nd and 3rd rows from the bottom). The US and Latvia led the pack with women in higher profile jobs, even with the US having (relatively) low workforce participation.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering how Luxembourg got a perfect income ratio score but not a perfect equal pay score: incomes for the ratio calculation were capped at $75k. Luxemborg has a very small population (600,000) and a very high average income (about $75K), so it really kinda broke the calculation. Including incomes above $75k would probably have changed that math.

Now, I want to be clear: I am not saying legal equality isn’t important. It is. But once you get beyond things like “are women allowed to legally go out at night” and in to things like “do pensions give explicit credit for child care”, the impact on participation is going to vary a lot. Different cultures have different pluses and minuses, so the same culture that gives extensive maternity leave may not end up encouraging women to go for the highest professional jobs. In cultures with low relative incomes like Latvia, women may use their legal equality to get better paying jobs more often. This confirms the pattern we see in engineering and science degrees….the most gender equal countries are not the ones producing the most female science grads.

Still, the hardest thing about calculating equality is probably relative income. While Latvia may have more women in higher level jobs, most women would prefer the US average income of $43k to the Lativian $20k. While many of the other top countries are OECD countries, some of the ones scoring the same as the US were not. Even with equal legal situations, I’d imagine that life for women in the Bahamas, Kenya, Malawi and the US are very different. That doesn’t make the metric wrong, it just means equality can be very different depending on where the overall median is.

One final thought: it struck me as I was researching these countries exactly how big the US is in comparison. If you add up the populations of the 6 countries with perfect scores, you get about 96 million people. This is less than a third of the 325 million people who live in the US. Large countries tend to be less equal than small ones, and I do wonder how much of that is simply supporting a large and disparate population. The US is the third largest country in the world by population, and the first one with a higher legal equality score than us is #10 on the list, Mexico with 38% of our population and a score of 86.25. The next one to have a higher score is #17 (Germany) then France. To test my theory, I put together a graph of population size vs WBL index. Note: it’s on a log scale because otherwise China and India just kinda dwarf everything else.

So basically no country with a population over 100 million has gotten over a score of 86. Speculating on why is a little out of my wheelhouse, but I think it’s interesting.

And with that I’ve gone on long enough for today, but suffice it to say I find global statistics and inter-country comparisons fascinating!

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