The World Economic Forum’s ‘Gender Gap’ Lunacy

Impression of the making of the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in DavosThe World Economic Forum, that ultra-prestigious foundation under whose exclusive auspices a couple of thousand of the most important (and self-important) of the politicians, businesspeople, journalists, and “intellectuals” on the planet congregate every January in the ski paradise of Davos, Switzerland, is, according to the motto that accompanies its logo on letterheads and reports, “Committed to Improving the State of the World” – one hors d’oeuvre at a time! The WEF has now issued a document that should be perused by students on every continent – not because it’s a terrific piece of work, but because, on the contrary, it’s one of the most splendid examples I’ve ever seen of statistical “analysis” taken to the point of sheer useless idiocy.

I’m speaking of the 2013 Gender Gap Report, which, as WEF honcho Klaus Schwab explains in his preface, sets out “to measure one important aspect of gender equality: the relative gaps between women and men, across a large set of countries and across four key areas: health, education, economics and politics.” The report, just under 400 pages long and awash in lists, charts, tables, and figures, draws conclusions that aren’t just counterintuitive but contrary to all logic, common sense, and experience.

To be sure, the report’s authors acknowledge at the outset the essential absurdity of their project. The Global Gender Gap Index, they explain,

is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries rather than the actual levels of the available resources and opportunities in those countries. We do this in order to make the Global Gender Gap Index independent from the countries’ levels of development. In other words, the Index is constructed to rank countries on their gender gaps not on their development level. For example, rich countries, generally  speaking, are able to offer more education and health opportunities to all members of society, which is often reflected in measures of education levels…The Global Gender Gap Index, however, rewards countries for smaller gaps in access to these resources, regardless of the overall level of resources. Thus the Index penalizes or rewards countries based on the size of the gap between male and female enrolment rates, but not for the overall levels of education in the country.

Like the UN Human Development Index and other such international rankings, the WEF report places the Nordic countries up top – but then gets weird very fast. At #5, after Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, is…the Philippines? Then, in tenth place, after Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, and Switzerland, comes…Nicaragua? At spot #15, three spots above the UK and five above Canada, is Cuba. (Yes, Cuba.) The U.S. doesn’t show up until #23 – right after Burundi, which, in turn, follows the richest country on the planet, Luxembourg.

Well, one thing’s for sure: the WEF has certainly managed to decouple “gender gaps” from “levels of development.” But to what end? Exactly what is the purpose of such a ranking? What is this vaunted “Index” trying to tell us? Well, one thing it does tell us, quite unintentionally, is that isolating “gender gaps” from all other aspects of human existence can be an incredibly silly exercise: even as one is pretending to isolate a single supposedly important aspect of people’s lives in order to illuminate those lives, one is obscuring – and, in practice, ultimately denying – other, far more significant facts about those lives, which provide that single supposedly important aspect with a context without which it is, frankly, meaningless.

Take the case of Burundi, standing there proudly at #22 – not just one place ahead of the U.S., but two places above Australia, and way ahead of France (#45), Israel (#53), and the Czech Republic (#83). A couple of not-so-fun facts about Burundi: in 2010, it was named the most corrupt country in East Africa. Freedom House considers it only “Partly Free.” Sixty-eight percent of its households live in poverty. The annual GDP per capita is just a tad over $400. Child trafficking, child prostitution, and the recruitment of children into militia are everyday phenomena. Briefly put, it’s a mess. But hey, they’ve got gender equality! Which is another way of saying that they’re all (metaphorically speaking, or maybe not) equally chin-deep in zebra excrement.

But even that’s not really true; far from it. Even Amnesty International – which, it can sometimes seem, is too busy bashing the U.S. to pay attention to real human-rights nightmares – acknowledges that Burundi is a “patriarchal society…in which rape and sexual violence are not taken seriously.” Rape victims are generally “mocked and humiliated” and rejected by their communities; some are thrown out of their homes, while others are compelled by their families to marry their rapists. Many rape victims don’t even know that rape is a crime. (Until 2009, marital rape in Burundi wasn’t a crime.) To hold up such a place as a model of “gender equity” is at once ridiculous and obscene.

Reading the report, I wondered how the Third Reich would’ve scored, or the USSR at the height of Stalin. Probably very well. Even now, after all, leftists in the West praise Stalin as a hero of women’s equality. Yes, he sent millions of people to the Gulag, but the gender breakdown of his victims was relatively equitable; yes, he engineered a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, but the deaths were pretty much equally distributed between the sexes. Same for Hitler: when it came to rounding up Jews and sending them to death camps, he drew no distinction (as far as I’ve ever heard) between males and females – which, by the logic of a report like this, makes him a veritable feminist hero.

Obviously, it would be a moral obscenity to ignore the sundry infelicities of Nazi or Stalinist rule and –  solely on the basis of a grading of sexual equality derived from an almost entirely decontextualized set of economic and political data – to blithely slip those regimes into a slot on a list like this, among an assortment of decent liberal democracies. In the same way, it’s absolutely outrageous to see Cuba here, positioned innocently between Germany and Lesotho. How, you might ask, does Cuba merit fifteenth place? Well, in “Economic Participation and Opportunity” it came in at #65; in “Educational Attainment,” #30; and in “Health and Survival,” #63 – not great scores (though still probably better than it deserves). But on “Political Empowerment,” it was awarded an estimable thirteenth place. Since fifteen is not anywhere near the average of 65, 30, 63, and 13, the “political empowerment” score was plainly given extra weight.

And on what, in turn, was Cuba’s “political empowerment” score based? As David Adesnik of the American Enterprise Institute reported the other day in the Weekly Standard, the sole reason for this impressive score is that 49% of the members of Cuba’s national legislature are women. That’s it. Never mind that we’re talking here about rubber-stamp apparatchiks in a Communist dictatorship; as far as the WEF is concerned, apparently, what matters here is that (thanks, as Adesnik quite rightly put it, to “Raul Castro’s personal interest in the appearance of equality”) just under half of the legislative instruments of party oppression in Cuba have two X chromosomes.

But “Political Empowerment” isn’t the only category in which the numbers are seriously disconnected from the realities they purport to represent. As Adesnik pointed out, not only Burundi but several other hovels, such as Malawi and Laos, owe their superb “Economic Opportunity” scores to business leaders in those countries who, when invited by the WEF to rate their homelands, turned out to be very easy graders, whereas their counterparts in highly developed nations like the U.S. “evaluated their own egalitarianism less generously.”

James Taranto, writing about the WEF report in the Wall Street Journal, even questioned the placement of Nordic countries at the very top of the pile. Noting that the Index (curiously enough) doesn’t take into account “occupational ‘gender segregation’ – the degree, that is, to which men work in ‘male jobs’ and women in ‘female’ ones” – Taranto observed that this kind of “gender segregation” is actually more pervasive in the universally idealized Nordic countries than anywhere else in the developed world. But this “segregation” operates to the detriment of men: walk into any large government office in Scandinavia – the tax office, the welfare office, the notary – and you’ll likely see rows and rows of women at desks, holding down relatively cushy, and “elite,” jobs; but there are far fewer women construction workers or truck drivers than in, say, the U.S. In short, there’s “employment equality” of a sort, but to a great extent it’s a separate-but-equal kind of equality.

I might add that the WEF Index also gives extra points to countries where there are state-imposed periods of maternity and paternity leave and where the law requires a certain percentage of female members on corporate boards of directors. In other words, the report, to a considerable extent, rewards intrusive government and rigid socialist engineering and punishes countries where there’s more freedom and flexibility in such matters.

Adesnik called the report’s methodology “indefensible.” That’s putting it mildly. The thing is a joke. But this fact, as Adesnik further noted, was lost on the major news media, which dutifully passed on the WEF’s moronic “findings,” while such high-profile commentators as Nicholas Kristof used those “findings” to flail America for its purported failings relative to such gender-equality pacesetters as the Philippines and Burundi. Part of the reason why this truckload of baloney was taken seriously has got to be the shocking innumeracy of many people in positions of influence; anyone with the slightest understanding of mathematics would know that when you gather data as dubious, subjective, and unsystematic as this, then do a bit of adding and dividing and so forth until you wind up with cumulative scores that are carried out to the fourth decimal place, the impression of precision is an utter illusion.

The other reason why so many characters like Kristof buy such bushwa, of course, is that they want to. It serves their agenda. They’ll grab onto any evidence, however spurious, that will enable them to argue that some tumbledown tyranny like Cuba or some quasi-lawless pigsty like Burundi is better off than the U.S. by some allegedly liberal set of political, social, and economic yardsticks. The kind of people who can produce a report like this, and those who embrace it readily and unquestioningly, are of an ilk: what we’re dealing with here is a mentality that’s far more preoccupied with some crude and largely illusory conception of sexual equality – and, for that matter, of equality between groups generally – than with individual liberty. Not to mention that they likely despise the West, and capitalism, and especially America, and will thus gladly give a boost to even the most pathetic polity if it’ll help knock the U.S. down a notch.

With all that in mind, here’s a closing suggestion for the folks who run the World Economic Forum: just to put your money where your mouths are, why don’t you cancel your 2014 Davos shindig and instead meet in Burundi? The skiing’s nothing to write home about, but the locals (except when they’re in the midst of a rape) enjoy such an admirable degree of sexual equality that the spectacle of them all, male and female alike, sticking their equally grubby hands into your limo window begging, with equal desperation, for a coin or two will surely send shivers of joy up your spines.

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  • Softly Bob

    Most of the women that I know earn far more money than I do.

    If women aren’t earning as much as men, it’s not because employers pay them less for doing the same job (which as far as I know is illegal in most developed countries), it’s because women are less likely to take the highest paid jobs and are more likely to give up their careers to become mothers.
    Now if you want to see real gender discrimination then look at the world of dar-al-Islam. This is where real sex inequality exists in all aspects, socially, economically, politically and legally.

    As for the U.S.A. then all I can say is that you should be ashamed of yourselves for coming behind Burundi

  • LolKatzen

    Generally, if Kristhof is recommending something, you must be suspicious. As this example shows. Why NYT can’t get better columnists is a mystery. Kristhof is almost never worth reading.

  • Race_Dissident

    Thanks for the illuminating piece, Mr. Bawer. And as an adjunct to your zinging final paragraph, how many American women would be better off living in Burundi? Given the opportunity–and it surely exists already–why don’t they vote with their Prada stilettos and hot-foot it to Bujumbura?

  • KhidonNOR

    Brilliant analysis. Captures everything that is wrong with our insane and immoral post-academic academia, in a nutshell.