Gender & geography: does where women live affect their opportunity?

Do some countries value women more than others?

Most of us would instinctively say yes and we would probably even be confident to have a stab at which ones they are.

" Some developed economies have experienced a rather embarrassing backwards slide [in equality]."
Elizabeth Masamune, Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan

A quick look down the rankings of the Global Gender Gap Index 2016, published every year by the World Economic Forum, confirms what we might have guessed in relation to some countries.

We can see some cultural, religious or historical reasons which are obvious enough. But the survey also reveals quite a few hidden eye-openers - and some uncomfortable challenges to our own carefully constructed self-image and perceptions of the workplace.

Nor is gender equality – something now almost universally recognised as socially and economically desirable, with a solid and expansive body of research behind it – the domain of the developed world.

Some developed economies have experienced a rather embarrassing backwards slide - notably Japan, despite prime minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ campaign.

And quite a few supposedly underdeveloped nations demonstrate a markedly egalitarian approach to utilising all their people, male and female - the Philippines and Laos stand out.


Now it won’t surprise many to hear the top four spots on the index of 144 countries represented are traditionally occupied by Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

Those who have ever visited unassuming New Zealand may not raise an eyebrow to find it featuring consistently in the top 10 - nine in 2015 and 10 in 2016.

European countries in the top 20 with good economic empowerment, educational attainment and a strong history of women in Ministerial positions or as Head of State include Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, the UK, Ireland, France, and Germany.

In contrast, the far more male-dominated cultures of Italy (50), Russia (75), and Greece (90) show economic and political empowerment lagging well behind.

Who comes next on the global gender equality ladder? Shared values may lull us into assuming sophisticated democracies like Australia, Canada and the United States should feature closely behind their leading European cousins.

The stark reality could not be more different. Moreover, the alarming results of the 2016 survey indicate not only is the gender gap bigger than it should be in these countries, it is in fact widening.

Australia fell from 36 in 2015 to 46 in 2016, marginally ahead of the United States which plummeted from 28 in 2015 to 45. Even Canada, which many would consider nothing if not egalitarian, found itself dropping 5 ranks from 30 to 35 in 2016.

Sure, this is relative. At one level it simply means another country may have improved faster. But as Hillary Clinton demonstrated in spectacular style, the glass ceiling is made of very strong stuff for women in politics in these countries and the lack of political empowerment for women is a major factor dragging them down.

To add to this, in Australia and Canada alike, there was a disturbing widening of the income gap between men and women over the past year.


If we take a quick tour around Asia Pacific, there are more than a few unexpected rankings along with some not-so-surprising ones.

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The Global Gender Gap Index is a relative measure of the gap between men and women in any given economy, based on four key areas:

  • Economic participation and opportunity
  • Educational attainment
  • Health and survival
  • Political empowerment

It measures the relative gap in access to resources and opportunities across these areas, aiming to allow a better comparison between developing and developed economies.

It is obvious from this report some countries do appear to value women more highly than others. But it’s also clear there are other demographically younger countries who are slowly learning to harness the dynamism of people power - regardless of gender - to grow their economies and stay ahead.

To truly realise gender equality, perhaps we need to stop talking about women, full stop.  In Japan, the Law on the Promotion of Women in the Workforce was introduced in April 2016 and aims to ‘name and shame’ by creating a kind of reverse competition amongst firms to outdo their rivals.

It has certainly lead to efforts to bolster the numbers and make the company look good in the Annual Report. But real progress is still being held back by those who’ve had enough of hearing about ‘womenomics’ and feel women are being prematurely pushed into senior positions regardless of merit. Some women consequently decide it’s all too hard and take the path of least resistance instead.

Australia has suffered from a similar problem. The Male Champions of Change addressed this in their discussion of Avoiding the ‘merit trap’.

The skill sets companies need tomorrow will most certainly not be the ones they have today. Who is to say one person is more meritorious than another, against what sort of benchmark?

One thing is for sure, surrounding like with more like only serves to perpetuate unconscious bias.

‘Disinfecting’ the conversation from the beginning may be the first step towards reaching a point where gender equality is not something we have to constantly talk about, it’s just assumed.

It’s not about women, or men, or any kind of affirmative action. It’s just about everyone.

The World Economic Forum warns us, after a decade of collecting data, progress across the board is still too slow for us to ever see half of the human race reach its full potential in our lifetimes. I, for one, hope to stay around long enough to celebrate that auspicious day.

Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade in North and South East Asia. She is Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan Inc, specialising in building capability in cultural intelligence and supporting women in Asian business. She sits on and advises the boards of major Japanese organisations.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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