In deeper, day-to-day advocacy circles, the limitations of gender equality indexes indicators start to emerge on a number of levels.
First, because these statistics measure differences between men and women, they speak to relative disparities rather than overall well-being. This can be deceptive. For example, countries that have equal but abysmally low rates of school enrollment for boys and girls can still do relatively well on an index because they have closed a gap using a relatively low bar. Also, certain non-democratic countries, such as those in the Gulf region, can have nearly equal but very low rates of overall political participation, masking the need for widespread political reform. Conversely, countries such as India where people have markedly high rates of political participation for women and men through voting and political organizing may not do so well because the indicators only measure the success of candidates for the highest political office.
Also, because these statistics aggregate numbers for all women, they obscure the reality that some women in each country may be doing well while others are much worse off. For instance, in most contexts, able-bodied, heterosexual, urban, middle-class women and girls who are part of ethnic and language majority communities are likely to have more opportunities to go to school, get decent, adequately-paying jobs and participate politically than their counterparts from rural, disabled, queer, indigenous, migrant and poor communities.
Additionally, even statistics that look ‘good’ cannot capture the full picture and may even disguise trends that run counter to women’s rights. For example, social Watch argues that even though the education gap is closing in many countries, it is important to understand how. So although more girls may go to school in a particularly country, are more of them stuffed into small classrooms? What is the condition of the schools? Is it dangerous for them to travel there? Are the conditions safe and sanitary? Do they have adequate nutrition and health to learn? Are their textbooks gender-biased? Are their teachers untrained? And do these girls face resistance to asserting their knowledge in the private sphere as they learn more outside the home?
Similar inquiries relate to labor force and political participation statistics. For example, in the GEI, Spain and the Philippines have comparable rankings. Both are doing well at closing gaps in education, with nearly 99 girls attending school for every 100 boys. The Philippines, though has much higher rates of economic participation and Spain boasts many more women as political representatives. In both countries, though, it’s the qualitative nature of participation that counts. Specifically, many Filipina women work in the informal sector at home and abroad under exploitative working conditions. Most have few protections and benefits and bear tremendous personal costs and sacrifices to do these jobs. Thus, high percentages of labor force participation don’t necessarily translate into women’s well being.
Meanwhile, efforts made within Spain’s political system have enabled more progressive women to seek political positions and this has translated into progressive public policy gains for women; thus its not clear that Spain’s and the Phillipines’ numeric equivalencies on the GEI mean that gender gaps are closing in similar or beneficial ways.
In many other countries, conservative women fill political ranks, threatening and even reversing gains in terms of women’s rights. Moreover, in some countries such as India, which features amongst the bottom in the GEI, women have made deep inroads into local politics, where they have exerted significant influence in community policy setting related to health, education, sanitation, infrastructure and the environment. Yet none of this is reflected in political participation statistics that capture participation solely at the national level.
Finally, to the extent that educational, economic and political indicators tell one set of stories, they are silent on major issues that impact women’s well being, including unpaid care work, violence against women and sexual and reproductive rights. For example, Ireland features among the top ten in the 2009 GGI, but abortion is banned there. Similarly, South Africa ranks sixth due in large part to the high number of women brought in by the new government but struggles with widespread poverty, an ongoing AIDS pandemic and the world’s highest rate of reported rape. The Bahamas ranks at #5 of the GEI but does not recognize same-sex unions and has no anti-discrimination laws related to sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Lack of sexual and reproductive rights and endemic violence against women can often mitigate or even nullify the real gains reflected by ‘good’ statistical indicators in education, employment and political participation.
Moreover, the fact that none of the indexes account for unpaid care work may inadvertently contribute to its ongoing invisibility and increasing use as a way to compensate for cuts in social spending and the increasing burdens families face due to the worldwide systemic crisis. It does little good that women can have access to more paid jobs and seats in representative bodies if their burdens also increase in the home as a result and they are not safe and healthy overall.
Ultimately, rights are inter-related and statistics that seek to measure them – as a means for further analysis and advocacy – have a ways to go in being able to accurately reflect this. In the meantime, they continue to send powerful messages to a variety of stakeholders that there is much work to be done. As BRIDGE, a knowledge service from the Institute of Development Studies puts it, because what is measured is likely to be prioritized and tracked, indicators make the case that gender equality needs to be taken seriously.
Masum Momaya writes: Progress towards gender equality is measured annually through various statistical indices, including the gender-related development index (GDI), produced by the United Nations, the Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) put forth by the World Economic Forum and the Gender Equity Index (GEI), compiled by Social Watch, an international network of citizens’ organizations. These indices are composite calculations of consistently collected and widely available statistics, including those related to life expectancy, school enrollment, labor force participation and political representation. Gathered since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, these statistics serve as both indicators and proxies for a wide range of markers of equality. They are calculated for both women and men at the country level, and countries are ranked as to how well they are doing in comparison to each other and over time.