Mind the (gender) gap: Reflections on the Global Gender Gap Report 2020


The World Economic Forum (WEF) has just released its Global Gender Gap Report 2020. No doubt you will read some headlines that say the report demonstrates progress — that we are back on track towards our goal of achieving gender parity. But in my view, there is not a lot to celebrate, particularly in a few key areas.

Yes, it is good news that we are indeed moving forward. We have, once again, broken the 100-plus-year barrier to achieve total gender parity.

Looking at the global state of women through the four main pillars shows some true areas of progress and gives a reason to be optimistic. There are bright spots:

  • We are doing an impressive job of educating our women and making sure that they are healthy. Educational Attainment and Health and Survival are much closer to gender parity at 96.1% and 95.7%, respectively.
  • We are optimistic that we may see our first true global gender gap closed in just 12 years. The educational attainment gender gap is on track to be closed by 2032, mainly thanks to advancements in some developing countries.
  • Closing the Health and Survival gender gap has already been achieved in 40 of the 153 countries in the 2020 report.

The time to close the gender gap dropped to 99.5 years, compared to 108 years in last year’s report. That’s still a leap backwards from where we were in 2016 — when the time to achieving parity was only 83 years. In four years of talking about gender parity, we’ve actually regressed by a heart-sinking -16.5 years. And 99.5 years means we are still a lifetime away from true gender parity. A lifetime away from something that should be happening NOW.

If you dig into the numbers, the situation gets even more bleak. To me, the most upsetting regression from the WEF Gender Gap Report 2020 was on the topic of Economic Participation. Looking at gender parity through the lens of economic participation, the gap grew by 55 years from last year’s report. It will now take 257 years to close, compared to 202 from last year.

This year’s report points to a number of factors when discussing this widening economic gender gap.

  1. Most prominently, the percentage of women in managerial or leadership positions is still very low.
  2. We’re seeing wage stagnation across the board and the roles of the future are dominated by men.
  3. In the fields of Data and AI, Engineering, and Cloud Computing, women only represent 1/4th to 1/9th of all employees.

Wondering how globally we added over half a century to achieving global economic parity? Here are the stats:

  • Globally, only 55% of women are engaged in the labor market opposed to 78% of men.
  • There are 73 countries where women are barred from opening bank accounts or obtaining credit.
  • There is no country where men spend the same amount of time on unpaid work as women. In countries where the ratio is the lowest, it is still 2:1.

So, what is going on? Why is this economic gap growing?

One reason is technology, though maybe not in the way you are thinking. Women are more highly represented in roles hit hardest by automation, such as retail, as online shopping and consumer giants grow their online presence and move away from traditional brick and mortar.  Along with this, women are only the (slight) majority in 2 of the top 10 fastest growing sectors in the global economy.

Another consideration is the representation of women in politics. This number didn’t decline in this year’s report, but it will still take 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation.

2019 did see a marginal increase in the number of women in politics. The political gender gap narrowed by 12 years from last year’s statistics. But even with this small win, the 2020 report revealed an upsetting statistic — 85 of the 153 countries have had no female head of state in the past 50 years.

Interestingly, the so-called “role model effect” may be reaping dividends in terms of both leadership and wages. Improving political empowerment for women has, as a general rule, corresponded with increased numbers of women in senior roles in the labor market.

If you look at and understand the overarching basics of this report, then it should come as no surprise that the Nordics continue to occupy the top four spots, just as they did last year. Iceland has held the top spot for 11 years in a row. Two-thirds of the countries ranked improved their scores from 2019 to 2020. The other one-third saw their performance unchanged. (153 countries ranked, four of them are new to the rankings.)

Unfortunately, most of the countries with improved scores are progressing at a painstakingly slow rate. Surprisingly, North America is rated by the WEF as the region with the second longest time to reach gender parity at 151, compared to Western Europe at 54 years, which sits on the top of the rankings. While 151 years is an improvement from 2018, North America, MENA (150 years), and East Asia (163 years) are terribly far behind compared to all other global regions.

Focusing in on the United States, from the start of the WEF Global Gender Gap report in 2006, we have regressed 20 spots (23 in 2006 to 53 in 2020).

  • In only one of the four main categories has the United States bettered its ranking (educational attainment, 66 in 2006, 34 in 2020).
  • All other categories have seen a fall (economic participation fell from 3 to 26, health and survival from 1 to 70, and political empowerment from 66 to 86)

This 2020 WEF report should be a clarion call to people in the United States who understand the critical role gender parity will play — not only for social progress — but in the future of work and continued economic viability. More work must be done, and quickly, in order to catch up.

Ultimately, as you read different perspectives on the WEF Gender Gap Report 2020, it’s important to remember this: yes, it is good news that we continue to do great on educating our women and health and survival. But we are simply not keeping up the same pace with progress on economics and politics. We must do better.

At Mercer, we are just compiling the key findings of our own When Women Thrive report on gender equality — which will reflect the input of more than 1,500 organizations representing 6.5 million people — which we will share at Davos in January. We believe our research will illuminate some strategies and steps business leaders can take to accelerate this journey to economic parity. More to come in 2020.    

Pat Milligan
Pat Milligan

Senior Partner, Global Leader, When Women Thrive, Mercer

Global Leader, Multinational Client Group & When Women Thrive