Gender Inequality in the World and Its Implications

Cornhusker Economics January 14, 2015Gender Inequality in the World and Its Implications

Worldwide one in three women will be abused sexually or will encounter physical violence during her lifetime (Human Development Report (HDR), 2014). That amounts to about 1.2 billion women. Although gender-related abuse and violence exist everywhere, the issues that come to mind when contemplating gender inequality in high-income countries are usually related to job opportunities, career advancement, or wage disparities. In many developing countries, gender inequality is a much more severe problem; it is manifested in health disparities, limited access to education, and even in the violation of human rights.

For instance, in a recent New York Times opinion piece, Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian author, argued that a common practice in many countries in Africa and the Middle East is female genital mutilation, an example of a severe human rights violation directed at women and girls. This practice involves removal or cutting of the external female genitals of girls usually less than 15 years old with the possible side-effects of severe bleeding, infections, infertility, and complications in childbirth. The United Nations (UN) has launched an effort to stop this practice, a medically unnecessary procedure, that, according to the UN, was performed on as many as 125 million females in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries (Voice of America (VOA) 2014).

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) publishes an annual report on the state of human development in the world. The HDR is built around a statistical measure known as the Human Development Index (HDI). This index is computed for 187 countries as the average of life expectancy at birth, per capita income, and a measure of educational attainment. The authors of the HDR also estimate two indexes related to gender:  (1) the Gender Inequality Index (GII), based on maternal mortality rates, adolescent pregnancy rates, and the percentage of national parliaments made up of women; and (2) the Gender Development Index (GDI), based on comparisons between males and females in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment, and income (HDR, 2014).

Data related to the GII are only available for 152 countries, some of which are included in the Table below. Slovenia scores the highest, while Yemen is at the bottom of the list. The United States ranks fifth on the HDI index (Norway is first), but falls to 47th on the GII. The reason for this change is that maternal mortality is somewhat higher in the United States than in other high-income countries, the US teen pregnancy rate is fairly high, and the number of women in the US Congress is low. It has been widely reported that women in the United States earn, on average, only $0.78 for every dollar males earn and this disparity cannot be fully explained by differences in career choices (American Association of University Women (AAUW), 2014). Note that the GII scores for the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Libya are lower than the US score. These countries are middle-income countries that would not be expected to have greater gender equality than the United States. Most high-income countries appear to have relatively low gender inequality making the United States something of an outlier.

In some countries, the mistreatment of girls and women is even more extreme. Violence against women in the form of "honor" killings, when a woman is thought to have behaved in ways that dishonor the family, and rape, both as a weapon of war and as a part of ordinary domestic violence, are common. In addition, intra-family discrimination in favor of boys means that girls often lack adequate health care, good nutrition, and access to education. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winner in  Economics  in  1998, estimated  that there were 100 million "missing" women as a result of discrimination (e.g., in health care and nutrition), infanticide through neglect, and abortion of female fetuses (Sen, 2003). Guilmoto (2007) has updated Sen's estimates concluding that there are now 163 million "missing" women in Asia alone (this is equivalent to about half of the US population), as a result of sex selective abortions and other forms of discrimination. Kristoff and WuDunn (2010) report that more girls were killed in the past 50 years than men killed in all the wars of the 20th century. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, and India are among the countries that Kristoff and WuDunn (2010) focus on in their book. All four, but especially Afghanistan, have high levels of gender inequality (see Table).

TABLE. Gender Inequality Index

Gender Inequality Index
Source: HDR (2014);
Note: GII values closer to 0 mean greater equality.

The authors of the HDR point out that laws and regulations to protect the rights of women and girls are not enough because social and cultural practices are deeply ingrained and difficult to change. The attention drawn to this issue, however, may be helping to encourage changes in national legal systems as well as campaigns to influence traditional attitudes toward women. The Kenyan government has officially banned female genital mutilation making it harder for this practice to continue and campaigns are underway in Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, and elsewhere to convince people to end the practice (Tostan, 2014). In addition to the work of many others, the effectiveness of Malala Yousafzai and her co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Kailash Satyarthi, in advocating for girls' educational opportunities is another promising sign that the slow process of ensuring gender equality may have finally begun.


Marianna Khachaturyan, Ph.D.
Dept. of Agricultural Economics
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

E. Wesley F. Peterson, Professor
Dept. of Agricultural Economics
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
(402) 472-7871,


AAUW (American Association of University Women, 2014). "The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap," Fall, 2014 available at:
Eltahawy, M. (2014). "Fighting Female Genital Mutilation," New York Times, November 16, available at:, accessed December 2, 2014.
Guilmoto Z. C. (2007) "Sex-ratio Imbalance in Asia: Trends, Consequences and Policy Responses," LPED/IR: 1-12.
HDR (Human Development Report) (2014) "Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience," United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Kristoff, N. D., and WuDunn, S. (2010) Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Random House LLC.
Sen. A. (2003) "Missing Women—revisited." Bmj 327(7427): 1297-1298
Tostan (2014). "Female Genital Cutting," Tostan, Dignity for all, Cross-Cutting Issues, at:, accessed December 2, 2014.
VOA (Voice of America, 2014). "UN Launches Global Campaign to End Female Genital Mutilation," October 30, available at:, accessed on December 2, 2014.