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November 2, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

It sucks to be a lady in France, and other findings from the WEF Global Gender Gap report

Until recently, I thought French women had it good. They’d invented a magic diet whereby cheese makes them skinnier, and they get all the free maternity care a woman could want. Then the DSK scandal broke this year, unleashing some ugly truths about chauvinism in France. It was perhaps in that “aha!” spirit that a fair amount of the press coverage of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2011 report, which was released today, honed in gleefully on the fact that France is #48 out 135, four places behind Kyrgyzstan where, if I have my misogynistic traditional customs GPS tuned right, bride kidnapping is still kind of a big thing. (Although some might argue that repeated alleged sexual assault charges share some similarities with the taking of a bride by force.)

From the NYT/IHT piece:

France poses even more questions. Although it is at the top in education and health, it ranks only middling on women’s economic and political influence. Saadia Zahidi of the World Economic Forum, a co-author of the report, explained in an interview that France scored 3.48 on a scale of 1 to 7 in the ability of Frenchwomen to rise to positions of enterprise leadership.

That, she said, suggested that France had a “corporate culture that does not encourage the rise of women” and was an indicator that helping women to move up the ladder “is not a major part of corporate policies.”

Then there are the Scandinavian frontrunners. These results surprise me like a pre-revolutionary Egyptian election result: “Iceland claimed the No. 1 position for the third year in a row, followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden.” (Bloomberg)

Then, sadly, there’s the MENA region, clinging stubbornly to its collectively lousy rankings while the world’s other regions sail by:

In the Arab world, the gender gap is so wide that the United Arab Emirates enjoys the best record with a lowly rank of 103, while Saudi Arabia and Yemen hug the bottom rungs. (NYT)

Regrettably, I missed this morning’s press briefing in New York, but here’s a roundup of today’s coverage of the 375-page report, written by Professor Ricardo Hausmann, Director, Center for International Development at Harvard, Professor Laura D. Tyson S.K. and Angela Chan Professor of Global Management at Stanford, and Saadia Zahidi, Senior Director Women Leaders and Gender Parity program at the WEF. Hats off to all of them for this gigantic annual undertaking.

It’s interesting that almost all of the headlines focus on the negative.

What the report (and many other similar lists) cannot, by its nature, account for is the deep inequality of experience and opportunity between women in a given country. Jesse Ellison at Newsweek/The Daily Beast put this well in an article about their own rankings:
Declaring that one country is better than another in the way that it treats more than half its citizens means relying on broad strokes and generalities. (The experience of a domestic servant can hardly be compared with that of an executive with an M.B.A., even if their citizenship is the same.)
Particularly in the developing world, inequality between women and the consciousness level and commitment by those with resources and influence are CRITICAL factors in how the struggle for gender equality evolves, since inequality is often even more acute. I’ve lived in a few countries in the developing world, and noticed that, for all sorts of obvious reasons, it is often the most privileged women who have the greatest opportunities to work on behalf of women’s rights.
As a junior studying abroad in Morocco, my mind was blown by the editor of the fashion magazine Femmes du Maroc, who devoted a substantial portion of her pages to things like legal issues, political protests against the discriminatory family law, etc. She also ran a literacy program for the young rural women who come to Morocco’s cities and become domestic workers. I tried to imagine her American counterpart, Anna Wintour, doing anything of the sort. This woman was hands-on. Contrast this to Lebanon, where a lot of the wealthier women kinda have no idea that there are poor women. (There are other reasons why the Lebanese feminist movement is hamstrung, more on those later when I can find a great essay on it by I think Jean Said Makdisi.)
The other interesting thing to do, which I will undertake after I’ve survived a midterm on Thursday, would be to compare this ranking with the Reuters Trust rankings that came out earlier this year and which took a lot of heat for being based on perceptions of people surveyed, rather than statistics and a clean, verifiable methodology. I mean, in the end, would I rather be a woman in France (#48), or in Lesotho (#9)?  Come on, now. Pass the cheese.

By the way, here’s what I did this morning while I wasn’t at the press briefing: I ran around Bobst Library doing a scavenger hunt and coming down with a severe case of Library Syndrome, in which I daydream intensely of retiring at 30 and spending the rest of my days checking out books and reading them in bed. There’s an amazing cookbook section that begs for a daylong visit on a snowy day over winter break.

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