Do men face more discrimination?

An article in the Daily Mail presents the argument that men face more discrimination than women. Similarly, RT writes: “Contrary to everything you’ve ever been told, in most developed countries men are actually more disadvantaged than women, according to new research published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals.” And Yahoo Finance writes “that men actually face more discrimination than women”. The story also made it all the way to Fox News.

The coverage builds upon a new article published in PLOS ONE, “A simplified approach to measuring national gender inequality“. The article begins with a critique of existing indices and especially the popular The Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI, an index I also criticised in a post last year). The authors of the article focus in particular on one aspect of the GGGI, namely that no country (by definition) can be more favourable towards women than to men. As they formulate their critique: “there is no defensible rationale for truncating scores on an ‘equality’ measure when they disadvantage boys or men.”

Based on this, they develop a measure of national gender inequality tapping into three specific dimensions: 1) educational opportunities, 2) life expectancy and 3) life satisfaction. They call this the BIGI, the Basic Index of Gender Inequality. The objective of the index is to pay attention to measures where women perform as well as or better than men. It is, for example, a well-known fact that women tend to live longer than men.

In Figure 1 in the article, the authors present deviation from gender parity across the 134 countries in the sample (missing data is illustrated with a black colour):

What can we learn from this analysis? Here is the main finding of the article that is getting the most attention in the media coverage: “In 91 (68%) of the 131 countries, men were on average more disadvantaged than women, and in the other 43 (32%) countries, women were more disadvantaged than men. The international median of the BIGI is -0.017 (SD = 0.062), that is, nearly a two percent deviation from parity, favoring women.”

While I believe it is great to put emphasis on dimensions where men face problems to a greater extent than women, I do believe there are noteworthy limitations in the study that are lost in the coverage. These limitations are significant and when taken into account, there is no support for the conclusion that men are discriminated more than women.

First and most importantly, the selling point of the study – i.e. the simplified approach – is also the main limitation. The study focuses on a limited set of indicators, selected in favour of men (in other words, to show numbers where women are doing better than men in a lot of countries), that are not necessarily providing a representative picture of gender inequality in a comparative perspective. Accordingly, it is misleading to draw conclusions about whether men in general are more disadvantaged than women.

Second, and related, the study argues that the approach “avoids the difficulties of choosing and weighing indices that are relevant in some contexts but not others, and often may reflect life choices rather than restricted opportunities”. I would argue that simply getting rid of most indicators is not a suitable solution to the challenge of finding relevant indices. As an example, the authors mention that “the ratio of male to female national politicians is only relevant to the tiny proportion of people who choose a political career”. This is incorrect as several studies demonstrate the implications and relevance of having female politicians beyond the career trajectories of the respective politicians (e.g. Anzia and Berry 2011, Clayton et al. 2019, Gilardi 2015, Ladam et al. 2018, and Mendelberg et al. 2013).

Third, I would not make conclusions about the state of gender (in)equality in different countries based on the BIGI. Saudi Arabia, for example, is one of the countries with a relatively high level of overall average gender parity. Granted, I do not know a lot about gender equality and discrimination in Saudi Arabia, but I am reluctant about calling the country a national gender equality pioneer. While the authors provide some post hoc reflections on why Saudi Arabia takes up such a good place, I see no convincing case for taking these scores serious.

Fourth, even if we want to compare countries, we are unable to say whether there are any statistically significant differences between the countries. It can be difficult to compare the scores on the index in substantial terms, and we are unable to say whether any country is actually significantly more equal than any other country.

Fifth, and related, one of the measures used to create the index is the overall life satisfaction data from the Gallup World Poll. However, they do not take any measurement error or uncertainty into account in any of the estimates. Accordingly, while they argue that the life satisfaction score is culturally independent, I do believe additional work is needed before the index scores are useful for what the researchers use it for. Furthermore, the use of survey data significantly limits the data availability and quality. In brief, I am not convinced that the life satisfaction data is of an equal quality and equally representative in the 134 surveyed countries, and we are limited in the spatial and temporal coverage of the index.

Sixth, in connection to the media coverage described above, the study says nothing about discrimination at all. Even if we do not take any of the limitations outlined so far into account, we cannot say anything about actual discrimination. In other words, the news coverage of the study is extremely misleading.

Overall, while I appreciate the objective of providing a better measure of gender inequality in a comparative setting, I do believe that the limitations outlined above render the index useless for actual policy recommendations. As I told the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen the other day, it is important to look at gender inequalities across different countries, but I cannot see the usefulness of this particular index in its current form.

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.