Erik Gahner Larsen

Problems with The Global Gender Gap Report

Or, why is Rwanda doing better than Denmark?

In this post I outline basic methodological problems with The Global Gender Gap Report (the GGGR). The GGGR is developed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and “benchmarks 144 countries on their progress towards gender parity across four thematic dimensions.”

Benchmarking 144 very different countries on their gender parity is a challenging task. Sadly, the report from the World Economic Forum is not doing a great job accommodating the challenges. The issues in the report are severe and the rankings should not be taken seriously. In short, the country rankings in the GGGR are misleading at best and completely meaningless at worst.

I will look at the most recent report from 2017 and illustrate some interrelated problems. There are other issues with the report but below I touch upon some of the most important. For some of the other issues in the report, see my (and others) comments in this article (sorry, it is in Danish).

The GGGR measure the relative gaps between women and men across four thematic dimensions: health, education, economy and politics. For each of the four dimensions we see that 13 out of the 14 variables are ratios.

For the subindex Health and Survival, the variables are 1) sex ratio at birth and 2) female healthy life expectancy (also as a ratio relative to the male value). This subindex will help us understand one of the main problems with the report, namely that it is not tapping into any meaningful gender gaps. Specifically, we will look at healthy life expectancy. This is a measure of “Average number of years that a person can expect to live in full health, calculated by taking into account years lived in less than full health due to disease and/or injury.”

Since men are doing exceptionally bad on the healthy life expectancy variable in Rwanda (with a value of 52.3), Rwanda is getting a very good score on this variable and this is affecting its overall rank as number 4 in the Global Gender Gap Report. Figure 1 shows the top 15 countries doing best on the gender parity list (notice Rwanda as number 4). The blue lines indicate the size of the gender gap.

Figure 1: Gender gap rankings, top 15 countries

The report is partially aware about this issue, as they write: “the Index is constructed to rank countries on their gender gaps not on their development level.” (p. 4). However, this is a serious problem as developed countries are doing much better in terms of the gender gap in health and survival, but this is not to be seen in the rankings (on the contrary, countries are punished for this, cf. below).

In other words, the first key problem is that the index is not necessarily measuring progress towards gender parity.

The report argues that the “Index rewards countries that reach the point where outcomes for women equal those for men, but it neither rewards nor penalizes cases in which women are outperforming men in particular indicators in some countries.” (p. 5) However, this is simply not correct for the measure on healthy life expectancy.

If we take Rwanda in 2017 as an example, the healthy life expectancy for women is 60.8 whereas it is 52.3 for men (a difference of 8.5 years). This is a big gender gap but is rewarded by the Index as women are outperforming men (remember that Rwanda is number 1 on the subindex). If we then look at Denmark in 2017, the value for women is 72.3 and 70.0 for men (a difference of 2.3 years). This is punished by the Index with a rank of 104 to Denmark.

In other words, while the gender gap is obviously smaller in Denmark (2.3 years) than in Rwanda (8.5 years), Rwanda is getting a much better ranking on the specific variable (103 rankings better!). This leads to a better overall ranking as the Index rewards the gender gap in Rwanda (leading to an overall placement of 4 in the ranking system) and punishes Denmark with an overall score of 14. Consequently, we cannot say anything about the overall gender gap score in Rwanda or/and Denmark by looking at the Index (or any other country for that matter).

When we combine these issues with the report, we will see that the Index – all else equal – directly rewards countries with low development. To illustrate this, let us compare Rwanda and Denmark in 2016. In Denmark, the gender gap in healthy life expectancy was 2 years resulting in a female-to-male ratio of 1.03 (71 years/69 years). In Rwanda the gender gap was also 2 years resulting in a female-to-male ratio of 1.04 (57 years/55 years).

As the Index is rewarding a greater ratio, lower development values are rewarded (i.e. lower healthy life expectancy). Consequently, since the gender gap was the same in Denmark and Rwanda in 2016, but Rwanda had a lower life expectancy, they performed better on the Index (13 places better than Denmark). This problem becomes more and more serious when the overall level of development decreases and the gender gap increases.

To show the implication of this, Figure 2 presents a list of the countries with the best ranking (number 1) in 2017 on health and survival. There is an interesting absence of developed Western countries. (But do note that even Syria is doing a top notch job in the GGGR when it comes to health and survival!)

Figure 2: Gender gap in health and survival, best countries

The nature of the problems makes it difficult to make comparisons between countries and use the rankings to say anything meaningful about what is going on in the individual countries over time. Accordingly, it is a bad measure for any meaningful policy discussion.

The World Economic Forum writes in the report: “The Global Gender Gap Index was first introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006 as a framework for capturing the magnitude of gender-based disparities and tracking their progress over time.” (page vii)

However, the problem is that we cannot say anything about progress over time when we look at the Index! From 2016 to 2017, Rwanda went from being number 100 to number 1 in healthy life expectancy despite an increase in the gender gap.

Gender parity is an important topic and I am sure the World Economic Forum is doing a great job pushing this agenda and turning it into an even more salient issue. However, in the current setup with these measures, I see no reason to take the ranking serious. Future reports will have to take the aspects discussed above into account before we might be able to compare gender parity across different countries.

New paper in Nature Human Behavior: Justify your alpha

Together with 87 other scientists I am co-author on a new paper in Nature Human Behavior. The paper is titled Justify your alpha and the abstract is as follows:

In response to recommendations to redefine statistical significance to P ≤ 0.005, we propose that researchers should transparently report and justify all choices they make when designing a study, including the alpha level.

The paper can be found here and more information on the context for the project can be found here.