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Minding the Gap

Lessons from the London underground

When the doors of a train in the London underground open, you hear a booming recorded male computer voice instructing you to ”mind the gap” – the space between the train and the platform.  You can get some nasty cuts and bruises on your ankle – or worse – if you don’t mind the gap, as my husband demonstrated for me once on our last visit to London. Luckily, it wasn’t anything a little disinfectant and time couldn’t take care of.

If only it were just as easy to remedy the effects of the gender gap – or even better, just close it.

“What gender gap?” you may ask. Or even, “What’s a gender gap?”

A gender gap is the difference between men’s and women’s access to resources and opportunities. The World Economic Forum (WEF) started measuring the global gender gap a few years ago and presented the results in the first annual Global Gender Gap” in 2006. The Global Gender Gap Index is put together by a team of top-notch economists, including professors at Harvard and Berkeley. They gather statistics from 135 countries about men’s and women’s health, education, and participation in politics, and then they rank all the countries according to the size of their gender gaps. The index only ranks countries based on gender gaps, not level of economic development. So, for example, let’s assume the US still has the highest standard of living in the world. That doesn’t mean that it has the narrowest gender gap, which explains why an African country like Lesotho ranks eight places higher than the US on the Gender Gap Index.

Why should anyone – including the WEF – be concerned about a thing like that? Aren’t American women better off than women in Lesotho?

That’s the thing. Everyone thinks this gender gap thing is “just” a women’s issue. Or that it’s is really just a problem for women in countries like Saudi Arabia, where they aren’t even allowed to vote or drive cars.

If you get anything out of this blog post, let it be this: The gender gap is NOT “just” a women’s issue, and it is relevant to everyone in every country. Not a single country in the world has closed the gender gap. The top four countries on the 2011 index (Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden) have gender gaps in the 15-20% range. And it’s all downhill from there.

The WEF – which you could hardly accuse of being a women’s interest organization – knows all of this. That’s why it’s publishing this Global Gender Gap Report every year.

Here’s what the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report said:

“The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human talent—the skills, education and productivity of its workforce—and women account for one-half of the potential talent base throughout the world.”


“Over time, therefore, a nation’s competitiveness depends, among other things, on whether and how it educates and utilizes its female talent.” (Global Gender Gap Report 2011, p. 27)

Well what a surprise.  If you make sure men and women are reasonably equal with regards to education, employment and health, the whole country benefits.  It really just seems so obvious I can’t understand why this isn’t at the top of every business and political leader’s agenda.

Maybe you’d be more surprised to know what a difference closing the gender gap makes to a country’s GDP.  The 2011 Report points out that recent research shows that even if you do nothing about any of the other gaps, the reduction in the male-female employment gap alone could boost US GDP by as much as 9% and the euro zone GDP by as much as 13%. What is that employment gap exactly? It isn’t just the difference in employment rate. It’s the difference in employment rate, difference in pay for similar work, difference in rate of advancement, and the number of occupations still dominated by one sex, male or female.

Why should anyone get worked up about that? Well, let me ask you a question.  How’s your economy doing today?

We can’t afford NOT to mind the gap.