Equality takes a big step backward

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This news will surprise only some: We have less to celebrate for Women’s Equality Day Saturday. Beyond notions of fairness and democratic pride, gender inequality also makes poor economic sense.

So why is the U.S. slipping backward, instead of moving up? We now rank 45 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index – falling 17 spots in one year. Ahead of us, in addition to predictable Scandinavian nations (top four spots), and a few in Europe (Germany 13; U.K. 20), sit a few surprises. Nicaragua ranks 10th best. Most of Latin America, and some nations in Africa and Eastern Europe, have greater gender equality than the U.S.

In Idaho, according to WalletHub’s in-depth analysis measuring 15 factors — “Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality” — women fare worse than the rest of their U.S. counterparts. Idaho ranks in the bottom 10, at 42. Utah is last. The best state for women is Hawaii, where the gender pay gap is “only” 12 percent. (Wyoming’s pay gap is highest, at 31 percent less for women in the same job position). Pay is only one factor measured; other categories include political power, career mobility, education (where the U.S. ranks first), and health care.

Idaho’s position hasn’t changed much. The nation’s sudden drop seems more alarming. According to the Center for American Progress, women make up the majority of the U.S. population and 49 percent of the college-educated labor force. Yet they constitute “only 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers, hold only 20 percent of board seats, and only 6 percent of CEOs.” The gaps are even worse for women of color.

Did those numbers plummet along with our overall ranking? Are we doing something newly wrong? Probably not. Despite our dismally worse rankings in other key categories (health and survival – 62; political empowerment – 73), America’s pay gap persists, but is slightly narrowing, according to Pew Research. Experts point to the fact that other countries are advancing faster, outpacing and outperforming us.

We still have a long way to go. Out of the 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index this year, only 65 have had a woman in the country’s top job in the last half century. Globally, women hold an average quarter of ministerial and parliamentary/legislative positions. In the U.S. it’s even less – closer to 20 percent.

In 1971 Congress designated Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day, chosen to commemorate the certification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the hard-fought right to vote in 1920.

Beyond civil rights, reducing the gender gap makes sound economic sense for any nation. According to data from the Organization for Economic Development, investment in women boosts economic development, market competitiveness, job creation, and GDP. Can we afford not to take advantage of that potential, and pick up the pace?

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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