The United States and the Inexplicable Gender Gap

By Leading Women of Tomorrow‘s Shea Formanes

The United States, which once led the world in improving gender inequality, has now slipped lower than ever before; the problem is that these systemic gaps between men and women have either remained static, or worse, gotten wider. 

Unsurprisingly, this year is no different. For reference, the World Economic Forum (WEF) annually releases the Global Gender Report, a document that contains an index that ranks countries based on a calculated estimate of gender gaps between men and women. According to the Global Gender Report 2020, based on the categories of health, education, politics, and economy, the United States now ranks 53rd out of a catalogued 153 countries. This isn’t exactly a surprising development, considering that the United States has descended in its ranking for gender equality over the past decade. In the Global Gender Gap 2010, the United States was ranked 19th in the world for gender equality, with particular accomplishments in terms of educational attainment (presently, women are more likely to enroll in college than men). 

The nation saw a sharp decrease in subsequent 51st according to the 2018 Global Gender Index. Now, we’re ranked lower than developing countries such as Nicaragua (ranked 5th in the world), as well as third-world countries such as Rwanda (ranked 9th in the world). Nordic countries (such as Iceland, Norway, and Finland) remain the top five best countries in the world for gender equality.  

Source: World Economic Forum

At its current rate, the WEF projects that North America will take 151 years to close its gender gaps, much slower than its regional counterparts. For context, it’s predicted that Sub-Saharan Africa will take 95 years to close its respective gender gaps. Additionally, areas like Western Europe, should only take 54 years in order to resolve their disparities. 

From 2010 to 2020, statistics show that the United States hasn’t resolved the gender gaps within its society, from employment and economic development to political engagement. Here are some graphs that illustrate this point: 

Source: CNBC

Source: World Economic Forum

It turns out that, while there have been significant improvements for American women, the growth has either stalled or simply not fast enough compared to other countries. For example, according to the 2018 State of the Union published by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, researchers hypothesized why this phenomenon is taking place, especially in the realm of female employment and the infamous gender wage gap (In 2020, women are projected to make only $0.81 to every man’s dollar). 

The answer revealed that while the 1970s and 1980s saw a spike in females entering male-dominated workplaces, this rate of occupational integration slowed by the times the 1990s rolled around. Since then, not much has changed. A 17-year timespan between 2000 and 2017 saw a 2.7% decrease in the employment rate for women aged 16-64, from 67.9% to 65.2%. While men’s employment rates saw a slightly larger, 5.2% decline during this time (80.7% to 75.5%), the fact remains that more men than women were overall employed, meaning that women felt the strain as the already wide gap widened just a little bit more. This is a problem present not only in employment and economic issues, but in education, political representation, and health protection. Without proper intervention, already-low levels of engagement amongst women will continue to decrease. 

Source: State of the Union (2018)

It doesn’t help that, with the structure of U.S. tax laws, women’s take-home pay is more likely to be taxed due to their status as a “secondary” earner in an American household. As global factors continue to shape labor markets, such as increased trade overseas and the growing reliance on automated machines for basic assembly jobs, women will be at a perpetual disadvantage to their male counterparts. 

All this considered, what remains is coming up with a potential solution to a problem rooted in American society. While the prognosis may seem bleak, how can the United States serve the women of its country, helping those that have been overlooked? On one hand, they can tackle the problem with prescriptive policies that would bolster female equity. A particularly fitting example is that of Iceland, currently ranked as the #1 country in the world for gender equality. On January 1, 2018, Iceland became the first nation to make it illegal for a man and a woman to be paid disportionately for doing the same job. This law, which applies to any corporation or government agency in Iceland that employs over 25 people, was the first of its kind, legislated in a country in which women hold 48% of all parliamentary seats in its government. This is an example of how effective policy can be in shaping female representation. 

Another method of achieving gender equality is not through policy, but activism and education. Despite the statistical explanations, the more pronounced cause of the gender gaps in the United States really boils down to the maintenance of stereotypes. While we may insist otherwise, the belief that men and women should be treated as fundamentally different in the workplace has never truly gone away. According to Shelley J. Correll, the former director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, employers operate their entire platform on these falsehoods, resulting in discrimination and “workers sort[ing] themselves into gender-conforming roles.” Because these beliefs are accepted, even encouraged, it’s taking longer for the United States to close their egregious gender gaps. 

Despite its acceptance being the norm, it shouldn’t have to be this way. There is always another option, and we have proof that fighting for what you believe in will yield results. The women of Iceland understood this for a very long time, which is why they fought for their rights since the genesis of the nation. As a result, their milestones occurred much earlier: the first woman to be elected to municipal government and parliament was in 1908 and 1922, respectively. The momentum of the women’s movement  was further propelled by the Women’s Alliance in 1982, a political platform that lobbied for issues such as equal female representation in the Icelandic labor market. 

Iceland’s success story was due in part to the solidarity between female scholars, political and religious figures. They rewrote the history of their own country so that women had a place in it. Unfortunately for the United States, we have a long way to go in order to achieve progress on par with Iceland. However, it is completely possible to, at the very least, start making our inexplicable gender gaps just a little bit smaller.  

Shea Formanes is an undergraduate student at the University of Washington – Seattle Campus. She is working towards a double degree in Landscape Architecture and English (Creative Writing). Currently, Shea is a Digital Media Writer for Leading Women of Tomorrow, where she pens monthly op-ed pieces about women in public office, as well as topics such as the gender wage gap and equal economic representation for women. When she isn’t writing, Shea works as an Editorial Assistant at the Wales Literary Agency, where she critiques manuscripts, and as a Student Assistant at UW CoMotion, where she uses her copywriting skills to head up multiple projects to improve audience engagement and write content for posters, websites, and reports. In the future, Shea hopes to pursue freelance journalism, as well as a career in filmmaking and screenwriting.

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