Gender Income Gap Still Severe in Global Economy

Despite progress in women’s rights worldwide, gender inequality still pervades much of the modern global economy

Image by Andy Thies
Image by Andy Thies

It’s not a surprise to many people that women are still grossly underrepresented in the global economy. Despite important strides in equality for women worldwide, there remain huge obstacles yet to be overcome. The huge economic gap between men and women represents one of the most fundamental challenges in the pursuit of global gender equality.

The infographic below outlines the global gender income gap. The area line-graph at the top represents the income ratio of men to women (2014 USD). With the exception of one country (Denmark), every nation on Earth has a male-skewed income ratio. Most countries lie between the range of “perfect” equality (1:1) and a two-times advantage for men (2:1). This group, which comprises roughly two-thirds of all countries, represents the general trend of gender income imbalance worldwide. That is, in most places on Earth, men earn substantially more than women, though women are still competitive in the labor force.

Note, the infographic is an analysis of the global and regional economic power of women. It compares the average income of a given woman in a country and compares it to the average income for a man. It does not take into account wages for the same job.

Infographic by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson

The Bottom 10

For one group of countries, the gender income gap is especially severe. Countries represented by the spike on the right side of the graph see a gender income gap that is stark. In some countries, men make as much as five times what women do.

So where in the world are women most economically oppressed? The ten countries (featured on right side of graphic) with the highest male to female ratio are Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and Oman. All of these countries lie in the Middle East and North Africa.

Why does this region have such poor gender income equality? We look to two main reasons:

Widespread Religious Ideals

The Middle East and North Africa are predominantly a Muslim-oriented culture. However, it is not this aspect that likely promotes a gender income gap. It is the way in which fundamental religious ideals pervade themselves into society. Islam is not only the prevailing religion among most countries in the region, it is essentially the only major religion in these countries, according to most statistical sources. In countries such as Algeria and Yemen, Muslims comprise up to 99% of their population. In most Middle Eastern and North African countries, that number is at least 90%.

This much ubiquity of a single religion causes traditional ideals to be deeply ingrained in the culture of the region. Governments officially adopt and to a degree enforce certain aspects of religious law. However, that is not to say that Islam in and of itself promotes gender inequality more than any other major religion. Rather, it is the degree to which religious indoctrination is promoted in this region that allows these fundamentalist, male-centric ideals to have such effect on women.

Big Oil Money

Within this traditionalist socio-political structure, income imbalance could be easily concealed in the presence of economic depression. This is no longer the case in the Middle East and North Africa. Within the last 50 years, countries throughout the region have enjoyed a massive influx of wealth thanks to copious oil reserves. Before the global marketability of fossil fuels, this region was mired in colonial influence and stagnant economic progress.

Two female students study on campus at Zayed University, one of three government sponsered colleges in the UAE
Two female students study on campus at Zayed University, one of three government sponsored colleges in the UAE

The injection of so much capital, while beneficial in most regards, has also resulted in a massive gender gap of wealth. Men, free to climb and control corporate hierarchies, have enjoyed incredible income growth. Women too have experienced benefits resulting from oil money. Higher education, jobs, and modest income growth have increased women’s standing socially and politically within most countries in the region. However, the area remains one of the most gender-imbalanced on Earth.

The Top 10

The top ten countries (featured on the left side of the graphic) include Denmark, Australia, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Vietnam, Slovenia, Mozambique, Sweden, and Burundi. Outside of Australia and Vietnam, all top ten nations lie within Europe and central Africa.

Europe and Australia are perhaps not surprising. These are regions generally regarded as being socially and economically progressive. General income equality between genders comes as a likely result of policies geared toward levelling the playing field in the labor force and government. Things such as extended maternal-leave allowance, increased presence of women in STEM fields, and participation of women in legislature have all likely worked to promote gender income balance.

Central Africa may be less obvious. In a region so economically-depressed, how would relative gender income equality be so prevalent? Again, we look to two key answers:

There is no correlation between per capita income and gender equality


Despite the widely held belief that economic advancement brings comprehensive social progress, this does not appear to be the case for gender income balance. The scatter plot above outlines this surprising reality. Each dot represents one country. The X-axis measures per capita income; the Y-axis measures income ratio between men and women

Not only does there appear to be no positive correlation between per capita income and gender economic imbalance, the trend is slightly negative. This means that as the wealth of a nation increases, the gender income gap actually gets slightly worse.

With total economic size playing no factor in promoting gender income balance, poorer countries such as in central Africa find themselves on a level playing field with the rest of the world.

Longer history of women’s suffrage tends to promote economic gender equality


Where total economics contributes nothing to gender income equality, a history of pro-women policy does. A simple way to compare countries’ policy toward women is to look at the year in which women’s suffrage was adopted.

The top ten countries with the smallest gender income gap had an average date of women’s suffrage of 1940. The bottom ten, on the other hand, had an average year of 1969. That’s a difference of almost three decades.

Even when we look to all countries, the trend is positive. In general, the earlier a country granted women the right to vote, the more balanced that country is today. Denmark, the most balanced country on the list, actually has an income balance that slightly favors women (2% more than men). Denmark has had women’s suffrage since 1902, tied for second-longest of any nation.

This correlation is significant for one main reason. It supports the idea that economic equality for women isn’t a simple consequence of growth. It is a result of political decisions and the will of the people.

Many countries in central Africa actually adopted women’s suffrage immediately after independence from colonial rule (mid-1900s). This implies a willingness of the people to recognize women’s voice in politics. It should come as no surprise that women are more equally represented in these economies today.

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