This past Women’s History Month, the Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index (GCI) celebrated its ten-year anniversary. The GCI measures ten indicators annually of the “role and influence of women in the workforce,” across twenty-nine countries among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Many of the findings are relatively unsurprising; Nordic countries are jockeying for the top spot, the United States persists as the only OECD country without paid parental leave, and women remain underrepresented in senior management roles, on corporate boards, and in political leadership. But what can ten years of tracking this data reveal about the state of women’s progress in the workplace? A few points stand out.
The GCI makes clear that major structural barriers persist. Take the stubborn gender wage gap, which across the OECD average, has hovered between twelve and fourteen percent since 2016. In the United States, there are long-standing debates about how best to close the gender pay gap, often placing the burden of solving this issue onto women themselves, who just need to “lean in.” Some countries have taken a different approach and sought to be more proactive. For instance, several OECD countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, have rolled out policies requiring large companies to publicly report their gender pay gap; in a sense, creating more transparency and potential publicity can push companies to close the pay gap, given their reputational interests in not being seen as laggards.
At the same time, women are over performing in attainment of tertiary education. On average, across the OECD, women’s educational attainment was “7.3 points higher than men's.” The age-old argument has been that once women could “catch up” educationally to compete in the labor market, then equality in the workforce would follow suit. But the data is clear, even with the overrepresentation of women in educational attainment (in a sense, labor force preparation) there are still gaps in other more future facing indicators, such as labor force participation, and representation in senior management, parliament, and on corporate boards. In fact, several studies have found that in their twenties, women and men working the same jobs are paid at parity. But as people progress in their careers, a gender pay gap emerges.
The net-child care costs and paid-leave indicators may shed some light on the wage gap. Across the OECD, average net-child care costs have gone up, while average weeks of paid maternity leave have gone down since 2016. This, in addition to disproportionate child-rearing expectations, leaves many women with little to no choice but, at least temporarily, to step out of the labor force to raise children. In countries like the United States, Hungary, and Poland, where access to abortion has been increasingly restricted in recent years, the decision to have children includes even more constraints (or may not be a decision at all). So, even with women highly prepared for labor force participation and paid at parity in their early career, the lack of structural supports for women (who are disproportionately primary caregivers) makes keeping this momentum in the workforce nearly impossible. In more recent editions, the GCI has measured paid-leave policies for fathers, which lead data researcher Lizzy Peet notes, “studies have shown that it clearly reduces hiring discrimination, and it takes away the fear that a lot of employers have around young women in their twenties.”
While many of these findings are crucial to fighting persistent gender inequities, it is important to note, that this index overlooks a large proportion of women. As one of us has noted elsewhere in writing about “gender indicators,” many of these metrics imperfectly measure women’s equality and reinforce the idea that women should assimilate into existing “male-oriented” structures. The GCI focuses primarily on bringing women into traditionally male-dominated fields, tracking how many women take the GMAT for business school, and representation at the highest levels of business and politics. While it is, of course, essential for women to be represented in these fields, this index inherently values women’s progress in terms of “male” standards of greatness. It fails to recognize that fields traditionally dominated by women, such as nursing or teaching, continue to be under-resourced and undervalued. And while the GCI narrows its focus to “women in the workforce,” it also does not address the massive costs that unpaid labor of childcare, elder care, and household chores women contribute, without which many of these economies’ would be crippled.
For many, the announcement of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to not run again may have come as a shock, but it speaks volumes about the continued scrutiny many women at the highest level face, in addition to ongoing expectations for new mothers (including expectations mothers impose on themselves). And while a single index cannot tell the full story, it helps make complex data more understandable and sheds light on ten years of stubborn, slow-moving trends for women in the workforce. While this index is titled “Glass Ceiling,” we must also not lose sight of the sticky floors and broken ladders to opportunities that many women face, especially those at intersections of gender, race, class, and other vectors of inequality.
Alexandra Dent, research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed to the development of this blog post.