Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is Ireland sexist or not?

Two interesting reports have come out in recent days that rank the world's countries by their perceived gender gaps.

First the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2011 ranks Ireland as the fifth highest in the world for gender equality, beaten only by Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. By their reckoning, Ireland's gender gap has closed every consecutive year since 2006, when Ireland was only 10th highest in the world. So Ireland has improved, and improved faster than some other high-ranking countries.

The other report is the United Nation's 2011 Human Development Index. The report actually gives Ireland an excellent overall score: seventh highest in the world for its mix of health, educational and income indicators. Here we see how Ireland started off below the OECD HDI average and leapfrogged it during the boom of the late 1990s.
So far so good. Things become strange, though, when we scroll down to the UN's Gender Inequality Index, which rearranges the world's countries based on their perceived gender inequality. Ireland, ranked 5th in the World Economic Forum's index, drops to 33rd in the UN Gender Inequality Index! By this measure, Ireland has lower gender equality than Greece, South Korea, Spain, Macedonia, Singapore or Poland.

The UN's gender index is based on these subheadings:

Labour force participation rate. The odd thing about this is that it ranks some very poor countries extremely highly. In Burundi and Rwanda, for example, the proportion of working women is higher than working men. The list of countries doing best for this indicator is a list of very poor or developing countries: Ghana, Laos, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and so on. Perhaps I am showing my prejudices, but I struggle with the idea that mass female participation in the labour markets of Papua New Guinea and Ghana really indicate a narrow gender gap! The highest ranked Western country is Norway, which still comes below Ethiopia and Azerbaijan.

Perhaps it would have been more helpful to compare actual incomes of women and men in these countries. When the OECD do this, they show that Japan and South Korea have far bigger income gaps than the OECD average, with Belgium and New Zealand showing the lowest.

Adolescent fertility rate. Again we see pretty bizarre results. The country with the third lowest adolescent fertility rate, and so the third highest ranking here, is Libya. Tunisia comes 6th. The country with the very best score here is South Korea, which also happens to have a major imbalance in its sex ratio because of sex-selective abortion or infanticide. That is, parents choose to abort or kill potential daughters in favour of sons. Once more I wonder if adolescent fertility is a sensible indicator of gender inequality. By this measure, New Zealand is deemed more unequal than Uzbekistan, Oman and Tunisia.

Population with at least secondary education (ratio of female to male rates). The curious thing here is that many countries have massively greater proportions of girls in school than boys. So first place in 2010 goes to Gabon where 1.553 girls were going to school for every one boy. In Ireland the ratio is almost 1:1, which I presume is healthier, though it shoves the country far down the list!

Shares in parliament. This one seems reasonable.

Maternal mortality ratio. Another more obvious one, with the top countries a more familiar mix of developed countries. Ireland comes second highest with only three maternal deaths per 10,000 live births.

Even here, though, Gapminder graphs show that maternal mortality strongly correlates with life expectancy and infant mortality, suggesting that what the UN is really measuring here is health in general, rather than a specific enlightened emphasis on maternal health.

So I do wonder if the UN's indicators for gender inequality are sensible and indicating any real phenomenon or not.

I realise I have questioned only the UN's methodology. The World Economic Forum's methodology is described here and, at first glance, does seem to be more complex and subtle. For example, the WEF look not only at female participation in the workforce but also their remuneration compared with men. Instead of simply looking at parliamentary presence, the WEF look at the 'ratio of women to men among legislators, senior officials and managers, and the ratio of women to men among technical and professional workers', as well as 'the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions and the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions'. Unlike the UN they do consider the sex ratio at birth, which shows up the massive 'missing women' phenomenon of south and east Asia.

So the WEF's way of exploring gender inequality seems more thorough than the UN's way.


  1. hi, Shane. really nice post :)

    may i ask you some questions related to the way i experiment sexism (in my country)? obviously i'm concerned about wage gap and lack of representation in politics, but i'd like to talk about 3 other things:

    is there street harrassment, or people in public spaces respect each other?
    i'm a 24 (overweight) brazilian, and i'm tired of being harrassed because of my gender and my body. i feel uncomfortable with unknown men evaluating my appearance when i pass, calling me fatty/cow or saying they will lick my ass... flattering, you know. i feel somehow threatened and really embarrassed, and sad and angry.

    i also would like to ask if, to be admited in a job, a woman must look good always, i mean, be thin, expend money with cosmetics, clothes, etc. or she is considered by her professional skills, like any other human being should be (unless if they worked with fashion, beauty industry, etc)?

    finally, how women are portrayed? what's associated with women? politics, economy, science, they are for all people or related to "men's world"?
    what's "feminine" for irish people? here is all about appearance. brazil has a female president (dilma rousseff) and the media keeps writing about her hair, her make-up, her clothes, her plastic surgery, her fatness, her ugliness, her age (not meaning maturity, wisdom, anything like that. but... wrinkles), her role as a mother (because most still consider domestic issues as women obligation, not something shared by the partners). they even asked her if she likes nailpolish, in her first interview as head of state. if she was considered beautiful, she'd be treated like a barbie, a former miss universe or carrie/charlotte from sex and the city.

    i hope your answers match my good expectations.

    thanks in advance

    ps. i'm sorry for any mistakes, i'm still learning english.

  2. Hi Ana, thanks, you ask some difficult questions. I think some of the things you describe are true for Ireland too. I know some women complain of men or teenage boys making sexual comments while they jog past, for example. I have been annoyed by TV chat show hosts interviewing a successful female boxer, for example, and remarking with surprise that she still looks feminine! Or interviews with a number of politicians of either sex and only the women are complimented for their appearance.

    About being judged on the streets, well I think this will happen everywhere in men's head, but how men BEHAVE is different from place to place. I was amazed in Malaysia once to see how openly some men stared at a female friend of mine, which made her very uncomfortable. Recently a female friend from an Arab country moved to the UK and she found the opposite: she was surprised how little men seemed to notice her. I explained that the men were still noticing her, but in Britain and Ireland it is considered rude to just stare at women :P So in that sense I guess it may feel slightly less threatening to be a woman in an Irish city than what you describe in Brazil - though some districts will always be more dangerous than others.

    It's hard for me to know how much of the patronising behaviour by TV presenters is just down to individual presenters and their prejudices, and how much it reflects deep social sexism. For example, we DO have female politicians, journalists, academics, business people, etc. I know that girls get higher average scores in school and the wage gap has slowly declined.

    Also it's hard to know if a woman is treated badly only BECAUSE she's a woman. Teenagers have insulted and tried to intimidate me too, passing on the streets. Men are much more likely to be physically assaulted than women, they have higher suicide rates and homicide rates.

    So I'm not sure how sexist society really is here. My own guess is that it has improved a lot, that girls are mostly encouraged to do well in education and women are often taken seriously in high ranks of society. There will always be some sexist individuals. Feminists here do complain a lot still, though. I don't agree with all of their complaints, but, for example, I do see some sexual stereotyping in advertising here. Generally I hope and expect that things would continue to improve slowly.


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