Where are the most women the most unequal?

Where are the largest populations of the most disempowered women in the world? The ten countries with the largest numbers of women and the lowest scores on the latest Global Gender Gap Report include China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Japan, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Turkey, and Iran. Five of these countries are in Asia, three are in the Middle East, and two are in Africa. Only the DRC qualifies as low-income according to the World Bank, five are lower-middle income (India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Egypt), three are upper-middle income (China, Iran, and Turkey), and one is high-income (Japan). Majority Hindu, Moslem, Christian, and Buddhist countries are all represented on the list. 

There are several important takeouts here. First, women’s disempowerment is not necessarily connected to a country’s level of income or development. Second women’s disempowerment is not the preserve of any one religion or culture. All very interesting. But one of the most important takeaways from this list is that it tells us exactly where we should be targeting national, regional, and global “female-empowerment” investments to make the most difference for the most women, and ultimately for the world.

The Gender Gap Index measures national gender gaps across four measures – economic, education, health, and political power. Countries are scored on each of these four measures and given an aggregate score, ranging between 0 and 1 (perfect gender equality). Among our ten countries, Pakistan scores the lowest in aggregate (.556) and Indonesia scores the highest (.688). Country performance varies according to each measure. For example, most countries score well on health – all score above .9 – indicating that the lifespans of men and women are close to equal in the countries. Similarly, education scores are high across nine of the ten countries (excluding DRC) – indicating that male and female educational participation is very close to converging.

However, scores on economic power (labor market participation and wages) are very low in Pakistan (.316), India (.326), Iran (.375), Egypt (.421), Turkey (.486), DRC (.571), Japan (.604), and Indonesia (.647). China (.701) and Nigeria (.687) score higher. The lower scores reflect the lower participation of women in paid work and in work that is paid at the same rate as work that men do. The lowest scores of all are recorded for political power, which reflects the low proportion of women elected to Parliaments relative to men. These scores range from .036 in Iran to .276 in India.

Where to target scarce gender-equity investments for maximum impact?

This information tells investors and donors exactly where they should be targeting their gender-equity dollar. The most urgent need is for investments that encourage and support women to run for public office and to lead ministries and governments. This is particularly critical in Iran, Nigeria, Japan, Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia.

The second priority is for investments that increase women’s labor force participation and wages, especially in Pakistan, India, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, India, and Indonesia. Educational investments are still needed in Pakistan, Nigeria, and the DRC and health investments could still close remaining health gaps for women in China, India, and Pakistan. When it comes to increasing women’s incomes, improving women’s health and education, and empowering woman as leaders in their own political systems, the women and girls living in these ten countries should be a special focus of their own governments, the United Nations, companies, and civil society.

Women living in the six countries with the lowest gender gap scores (Pakistan, DRC, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and Nigeria) have a special claim on international resources. If we are interested in targeting these resources to the largest groups of women who have the most to gain as a group, and the greatest to contribute to economic and human development, the Gender Gap Index analysis points to exactly what kinds of investments can have the greatest impact.

Updated August 2021