Gender equality: Britain vs the world

How does the UK compare to the US, France and Germany in the economic battle of the sexes?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 15 Nov 2016

The British like to complain. Think of it as a national hobby. The usual subjects - the weather and commuting – are perhaps unfairly maligned, when taken in the context of the wider world. It may be endlessly grey but at least we don’t have hurricanes; the traffic may be heavy, but at least we don’t have smog.

In the case of stubborn gender inequality, though, the complaints are rather more justified. It really is rubbish. Study after study shows that British women are paid less, promoted less, employed less and still end up doing more of the housework.

Why men earn more than women - in 3 charts

But are things any worse over here than abroad?

According to an index compiled by the World Economic Forum, the UK ranks 20th out of 144 nations (Iceland comes out on top, while the wooden spoon goes to Yemen), taking into account factors such as political representation, health outcomes and education.

In the category that most concerns the world of business – economic participation and opportunity –we came in a much less impressive 53rd (20th in Europe).

If you like your statistics like your instant coffee – quick and granular – here’s how we fared in the WEF’s economic subsectors compared to four of our competitors.

Labour force participation

This is the ratio of the number of working women to working men. Persistently high levels of part-time work and higher levels of economic inactivity mean there are only 86 working women in the UK for every 100 working men, making us 48th in the world. The Norwegians, with their greater commitment to shared parental leave, are the clear winners.

Labour force participation ratio

  • Norway: 0.95
  • France: 0.88
  • Germany: 0.87
  • UK: 0.86
  • US: 0.85

Wage equality

Are men and women paid equally for the same work? No, according to the WEF’s international survey of managers, who were asked how strongly they agreed with that assertion. An average of those scores puts the UK in 52nd, which was better than the US, France and Germany but still far behind Scandic utopia Norway (get used to that).

Wage equality score

  • Norway: 0.81
  • UK: 0.67
  • US: 0.65
  • Germany: 0.59
  • France: 0.47

Earned income

When it comes to hard cash, the gender pay gap still gapes everywhere. Again, the Scandinavians come out far ahead, with the UK lagging at a miserable 92nd.

 Gender ratio of estimated earned income

  • Norway: 0.79
  • France: 0.72
  • Germany: 0.67
  • US: 0.65
  • UK: 0.54

Professional and technical workers

Given that the UK does far worse in terms of the pay gap than it does in terms of labour market participation and estimates of whether women are paid equally for the same work, it’s logical to surmise that British women are less likely to do higher paid work.

Britain is indeed the only one of our shortlisted countries to have fewer women than men in professional and technical roles, coming in 72nd in the world.

Gender ratio of professional and technical workers

  • US: 1.33
  • Norway: 1.08
  • Germany: 1.06
  • France: 1.02
  • UK: 0.97

Senior managers

Things aren’t much better at the very top. There are nearly twice as many men as women in the ranks of legislators, senior officials and managers in the UK, 44th in the world. The US continues to do well in this area.

Gender ratio of legislators, senior officials and managers

  • US: 0.77
  • Norway: 0.56
  • UK: 0.55
  • France: 0.46
  • Germany: 0.41

What does all this mean? Some countries seem ‘more equal’ in some respects and less in others. Perhaps we can learn from the Americans in terms of female participation at the higher reaches of the labour market, or the Norwegians for everything else.

They can show that progress is possible, and allow us to put our own progress in context.

But ultimately this isn’t a race. Whether Britain comes 12th or 112th in the world, what really matters is whether we live in a society of equal opportunities and if not how rapidly we’re moving towards it. Given the relatively slow rate of progress in areas such as pay and executive directorships in our own country, we can take little comfort in small victories over the equally sluggish French and Germans.

Could do better.


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