Friday, March 18, 2011

Rwandan women on top of the world

No sooner had I published my puzzlement at being congratulated for having a son as opposed to a daughter, than the New Zealand Herald chimed in with: "New Zealand is the best country in the Commonwealth [in which] to be born a girl".

This surprised me a little, because it seems to me that unabashed sexism is vastly more widespread here than back home. So I set out to track down the study that the Herald is reporting. It wasn't as easy as it should have been, thanks to the Herald's principled refusal to reveal its sources, but eventually I found it.

It's a study by the Royal Commonwealth Society - an organisation I'd never heard of before this week - into gender inequality in all 54 countries of the Commonwealth. It looks at eight parameters, and assigns each country a grade from A to C for each. The parameters are:
  • life expectancy
  • infant health (defined as proportion of young children reported to be underweight)
  • years spent in full-time education
  • teen pregnancy rates
  • proportion of Commonwealth Scholarship beneficiaries who are women
  • proportion of members in the country's national parliament who are women
  • proportion of medal winners at international sporting events who are women
  • average pay.
So, New Zealand women do better on these values, in aggregate, than those in any other Commonwealth country - right?

Well, not quite. See, while some of the measures are based on numbers relative to other countries (e.g. teen pregnancy), others are based on comparison to men in the same country (average pay, education). So, for instance, Kenya scores an 'A' on pay because, while its people are dirt-poor, men only earn about 30% more than women; whereas Brunei scores a 'C', even though women there earn more in a month than a Kenyan woman makes in a year.

Then there's the 'education' measure. In the UK, for instance, girls spend an average of 13.39 years in full-time education, versus 13.23 years for boys. Better than equal! An easy 'A', surely? Well, no - the UK only gets a 'B' in that category, because the gap isn't wide enough. Presumably the study's designers believe that girls are innately stupider than boys, and need more education to compensate. Bangladesh, meanwhile, gets an 'A' for giving its girls 7.85 years of education - because its boys only get 7.25.

But for real confusion, turn to the final summary page. This ranks all countries by gender equality (which is where NZ comes out on top), and adds in figures and rankings for national income per head. Then, bizarrely, it subtracts one ranking from the other.

"If the figure is positive,", it explains, "it means that the country is doing better on our gender criteria than in its income ranking amongst Commonwealth countries."

Unfortunately, perhaps, this method handicaps all "developed" nations, so that for the richest country in the study (Brunei), there's no way to have a score higher than zero - and for the top ten or so, it's pretty much random. New Zealand and Barbados come out positive, while Australia, Canada, the UK and Singapore all come out negative. By this ranking, the country that takes gender equality most seriously is... Rwanda.

I wish I knew what the Royal Commonwealth Society is, and what it's playing at.

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