Emma Charlton

  • Iceland is the world’s best country for gender equality, a World Economic Forum index shows.
  • Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Namibia, Rwanda, Lithuania, Ireland and Switzerland follow behind in the top 10.
  • Overall, progress has stagnated, with widening gender gaps in political empowerment globally.
  • At the current rate, it will take more than 136 years for women to be on an equal footing to men around the world.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic threatens progress, with women bearing the brunt of the social and economic fallout.

Iceland is the world’s best country for gender equality, topping a World Economic Forum index for the 12th year in a row.

The island nation’s success is characterized by a strong performance in all four of the index’s gauges: economic opportunities, education, health and political leadership, and it’s improved on last year, bettering its overall score at a time when global progress has stagnated.

Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Sweden round out the top five countries for gender parity, followed by Namibia, Rwanda, Lithuania, Ireland and Switzerland, according to the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021.

Quantifying the gap on a regular basis matters because improving gender parity has a fundamental bearing on how much economies and societies thrive, the Forum says. Fostering and developing female talent has the potential to accelerate the growth, competitiveness and future readiness of economies and businesses worldwide.

“As the time needed to close gender gaps remains inadmissibly long, leaders are confronted with old and new barriers for embedding gender parity in the workplace, in institutions and across society,” Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s Founder, and Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, write in the report. “Leaving these new challenges unaddressed risks long-term scarring of women’s economic opportunities.”

Taking the temperature each year helps to highlight areas and regions that are ripe for improvement and to celebrate those that are doing well.

Overall, this year’s report finds that progress has stagnated, with widening gender gaps in political empowerment globally. That means at the current rate, it will take almost 136 years for the overall global gender gap to close.

Pandemic stalls progress

Progress is also under threat amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with women more likely to bear the brunt of the social and economic consequences, according to a study in The Lancet. The impact is so great it may even set us back, reversing some of the progress that has been made on equal rights, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

This is backed up by the report, which says preliminary findings suggest that women have been more severely affected than men, and that in some cases, gender gaps that were closed, have reopened.

More women lost their jobs than men, while high-frequency LinkedIn data shows a decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles.

Added to that, the pandemic has destroyed roles in industries with strong gender representation and many women worked a “double-shift” of paid and unpaid work in a context of school closures, the report says.

A key factor setting Iceland apart is that it is one of a few countries where women have been in the highest institutional positions in the country for almost as long as men in the past 50 years. A woman has been in a head of state position for nearly 24 of the past 50 years, second only to Bangladesh, where women have been in this role for over 27 years.

Iceland reigns

Further, 39.7% of parliamentarians and 40% of ministers in Iceland are women. Women are also highly visible in senior or managerial positions, representing 41.9% of senior roles and 45.9% of the board members.

Finland – in second position – has leapfrogged Norway and has closed 86.1% of the overall gender gap, up from 83.2% in the previous edition. It has many women in ministerial positions and the Prime Minister in charge since 2019 is a woman. The country has also shown an increased presence of women in senior and managerial roles, where women currently represent 36.9% of the total, an increase of about five percentage points.

Even so, there’s still a long way to go.

“Despite a small movement in many countries towards greater inclusion of women in society, women are still penalized in the world of work,” the report concludes.