In my last post, I highlighted the “horse race” aspect of the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, which shows the Nordic countries ahead of the curve in gender equality and the United States placing in the top 20 (#19) for the first time.

The ratings are based on each country’s “Gender Gap Index,” which in turn reflects four “Subindexes.”

The U.S. is doing well on two of these:  We are #1 in Educational Attainment and #6 in Economic Participation and Opportunity.  We are, in contrast, #38 in Health and Survival and #40 in Political Empowerment.

I promised to look more closely at these “heavy weights in our saddlebags,” and today I report back on what I found for Health and Survival

Probing this subindex turns out to be more a question of finding out what isn’t than what is.  I am reminded of Holmes’s famous advice to Watson:  “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

I start with the assumption that an overall ranking of #38 is pretty far down the pecking order.


As it happens, there are 37 countries tied for #1 on this subindex.  This puts the U.S. (along with the Czech Republic) at #38.  (Those familiar with the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings will recognize this phenomenon.)

In essence, then, the U.S. is coming in second–and it is a close second–behind a large pack.

This does not mean that there are no gender equality issues here; it does mean that they are less glaring than might have originally appeared.  Looking at the process by which the subindex is arrived at bears this out.

The subindex is based on two variables: (1) the sex ratio of females to males at birth; and (2) the ratio of female-to-male healthy life expectancy.

The first variable “aims specifically to capture the phenomenon of ‘missing women’ prevalent in many countries with strong son preference.”  This phenomenon, first described by Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, continues today; and it is reflected in China’s (#133 of 134) and India’s (#132) abysmal rankings for this subindex.

The good news for the U.S. is that we are #1 (tied with a number of other countries) on this variable.  No “missing women” here.

That leaves the healthy life expectancy variable.

Although women in the U.S. live longer than men (72 versus 68 years according to the Report), we don’t live as much longer as we should.  Biologically speaking, women are “engineered” to live longer than men–so long as we encounter the same living conditions.  Based on UN-developed standards, the Report assumes that women “should” live 1.06 times longer than men, but the ratio in the U.S. is only 1.0588.  That’s not dramatic, but it’s significant.

This shortfall is confirmed by a recent report comparing the U.S. with 12 other industrialized nations, which found that between 1975 and 2005 “

[s]urvival has deteriorated most rapidly for white American women relative to women in the twelve comparison countries.”  Ruling out other potential causes, the study authors suggest the “relative increase in the number of uninsured people during much of the study period.”

On Health and Survival, then, the U.S.  is not losing out by much, and we’re not losing out because of “missing women.”  Nor are we losing out because of causes such as diversity, obesity, or smoking.

What remains (thank you, Holmes!) appears to be limits on access to health care.

Enter the Affordable Care Act, which contains several provisions that are poised to be particularly beneficial to women.  Women have, in the past, paid higher health insurance premiums because, especially in their reproductive years, they have greater health care needs.  Women have also had difficulty finding insurance coverage for pregnancies.  These barriers to health care for women are slated to be removed in January 2014.

It won’t happen immediately, but it appears that this year’s health care legislation may lighten the load for the U.S. entry in the gender gap horse race.  Which may be enough for us to join–or even beat–the #1 pack in the Health and Survival heat.

Next post—Political Empowerment.

Sherlock Holmes quote from The Sign of the Four (1890).

The Sign of the Four, ch. 6 (1890)

2010 Report references: pp. 4, 18, 33.