By Christine E. Bose
When demographers make cross-national comparisons about gender inequality, they often develop just one summary score for each nation. Such measures incorporate several types of inequalities—e.g., income, education, health, or political rights—into that score. For example, Iceland ranked 1st, the United States 23rd, and Pakistan last (135th) among the countries included in the Global Gender Gap Index (World Economic Forum 2013). On the plus side, feminist activists and policy-makers use low scores to prod their governments into improving women’s status and rights. On the negative side, this blending of many inequalities into one score helps create false impressions about other nations. The data above suggests that Iceland is terrific on all types of gender inequality and that Pakistan is terrible. But in reality different issues related to gender inequality occur in these two nations and women of varying race, ethnic, or class origins living there also diversely experience gender inequality.
Popular perception suggests that the most significant gender inequality differences occur between nations of the Global North and Global South. This is partly true: The two regions are statistically different in the degree to which their social institutions, political-economic structures, and inequality outcomes are gendered. But this dichotomy also is inaccurate: It treats Global South nations as if they all follow a single gender inequality regime—while in reality they are more varied due to the mixture of developing and industrial national economies included. Indeed, some Global South nations are similar to the North. For example, the women-to-men literacy ratio is 1.00 in North American and .99 in Latin America and the Caribbean; while the women-to-men labor force participation rate is .89 in North America and .85 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We can observe more about gender inequalities by dividing the globe into additional regions and by using multiple measures for both developed and developing nations, such as in my data for 190 countries. To describe the varied patterns that exist around the globe I include:
- Four measures of gendered social institutions (e.g. laws on violence/physical integrity, family codes, civil liberties, and ownership rights which are called SIGI scores (Branisa et al. 2009, 2013));
- Four measures of more implicitly gendered political-economic structures (e.g. IMF debt, armed conflict, every having been a colony, and electoral democracy;
- Seven measures of gender inequitable outcomes (e.g. female-to-male ratios of literacy, secondary education, and labor force participation; percentage of parliamentary seats held by women; and three health measures of son preference as based on sex ratios); and
- Seven regions—where the Global North is represented by North America and Europe/Central Asia; and the Global South by Latin America/Caribbean, East Asia/Pacific, South Asia, the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), and Sub-Saharan Africa.
[See two graphics below]
The graphics illustrate diverse regional patterns for a sample of two inequality outcomes, secondary education and labor force participation, using a rectangular Box Plot to represent the middle 50 percent of nations in each region, with a line through the middle for the region’s median value. Europe and North America rank well on both measures, while the regions of the Global South vary considerably: Latin America/Caribbean and East Asia generally approximate Global North patterns; but Sub-Saharan Africa does well on labor force participation and poorly on secondary education, while the Middle East/North Africa exhibits the opposite pattern. Why does gender inequality vary so much across the Global South?
I answer this question by correlating the eight “input” measures of gendered social institutions and gendered political-economic structures in each of the six Global South regions to their respective seven gender inequity outcomes. The resulting three different patterns can be called gender regimes (Connell 2005; Walby 2004) or multidimensional forms of patriarchal structures. In three regions—Europe, Latin America/Caribbean, and the MENA nations—political and economic factors have the most explanatory power. Gendered institutions seem less important, perhaps because nations have tried to reduce the most explicit gender inequalities. In contrast, for Sub-Saharan Africa both gendered social institutions and political-economic factors create inequality, with slightly more impact by the former, following the stereotyped image of the Global South as needing change on several fronts. Finally, few of factors explain gendered inequalities in East Asia or South Asia: East Asia seems to be fairly equitable already, but South Asia may require additional input measures to explain its gender regime. Thus, even nations with considerable inequality do not exhibit the same constellation of factors nor have similar levels of inequality across them. Therefore, while many gender inequality input factors are cross-national, they take regionally specific forms.
Regional Differences in Female-to-Male Ratios, Labor Force Participation for Ages 15-44 (2010)
Regional Differences in Female-to-Male Ratios, Secondary Education, for Ages 25 and Older (2006-2010)
Christine E. Bose is Professor Emerita of Sociology, University at Albany, SUNY. She is also Affiliate Faculty at the University of Washington in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She is past President of the Eastern Sociological Society (ESS) and Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), and past Editor of Gender & Society. Her interests are in global gender inequalities, gendered labor market issues, and intersectionality. Correspondence concerning this blog should be addressed to Professor Bose at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The full article can be found in Gender & Society, December 2015 29(6).