gender inequality in life expectancy: massaging gender gaps

For at least two decades, top thinkers at leading international institutions have been working on gender gaps, including gender differences in life expectancy.  The United Nations Development Programme pioneered quantitative examination of gender gaps with its Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM).  This GEM was developed in the early 1990s.  The GEM was replaced with a Gender Inequality Index (GII, pronounced “guy”) in 2010.  Moving beyond the traditional one-to-ten rating, the World Bank established in 2004 a one-to-six rating for its Country Policy and Institutional Assessments (CPIA) Gender Equality (GE) criterion.  The CPIA GE is a more subjective measure than the GII and draws upon operational personnel with relevant experience.  The World Economic Forum, in turn, developed its own methodology for measuring gender gaps.

The World Economic Forum has provided some details on its examination of gender gaps.  The Global Gender Gap 2011 report explains:

To capture gender equality, two possible scales were considered.  One was a negative-positive scale capturing the size and direction of the gender gap. This scale essentially penalizes either men’s advantage over women or women’s advantage over men, and gives the highest points to absolute equality.  The second was a one-sided scale that measures how close women are to reaching parity with men but does not reward or penalize countries for having a gender gap in the other direction.[1]

Which scale do you think the World Economic Forum chose to capture gender equality?  If you think that’s too easy of a question, you can find in one of the report’s footnotes a hint at the methodological difficulty:

A first attempt to calculate the gender gap was made by the World Economic Forum in 2005; see Lopez-Claros and Zahidi, Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap.  The 2005 Index, which was attempting to capture women’s empowerment, used a “feminist” scale that rewarded women’s supremacy over men (highest score is assigned to the country with the biggest gap in favour of women).[2]

To capture gender equality, the World Economic Forum in 2011 chose a methodology that didn’t reward women’s supremacy over men in particular measures such as lifespan; instead, it chose the methodology that ignored such gender inequalities.  The Global Gender Gap 2011 explains:

We find the one-sided scale more appropriate for our purposes.[3]

Undoubtedly true.  In addition to this one-sidedness, absolute gender equality in life expectancy was defined as women having a lifespan six years longer than men have.[4]

As the current state of the world economy makes clear, this vigorous massaging of gender gaps hasn’t been sufficiently stimulating.  Given the amount of effort put into the activity, the failure to respond is a major source of international frustration. That men suffer a significant life expectancy shortfall relative to women, a gender inequality that government policy could easily address, seems to be of little concern to major international organizations.

top thinkers have been working on gender gaps

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[1] Hausmann, Tyson, and Zahidi (2011) p. 4.  Hausmann is a professor at Harvard University and Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard.  Tyson is the S.K. and Angela Chan Professor of Global Management at the University of California, Berkeley.  Zahidi is Senior Director and Head of Constituents for the World Economic Forum.

[2] Id., note 4, p. 32.  This note is attached in the report to the previously quoted text.

[3] Id. p. 4.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) developed its own Gender Parity Index (GPI).  Like the World Economic Forum’s gender gap measure, the UNESCO’s GPI ignores gender inequalities that favor women.

[4] Id. 83.  The United Nations’ Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) defined lifespan gender equality to be women having a five-year longer, rather than six-year longer, life expectancy than men.  See UN, Human Development Report, 2005, p. 343.  Hence, with respect to lifespans, the United Nations’ definition of gender equality is less unequal than the World Economic Forum’s definition of gender equality.  Here are some facts on the large historical changes in life expectancy and in the male-female life expectancy disparity.

[image] The above image is a derivative work. It uses an image that Peter Klashorst has generously made available under a Creative Commons license.  The original image shows female genitalia.  If such an image would offend you or would get you fired, put in jail, or otherwise persecuted, don’t follow the link.  I have provided the source link in accordance with the image’s Creative Commons license.


Hausmann, Ricardo, Laura D. Tyson, and Saadia Zahidi. 2011.  The Global Gender Gap Report 2011.  World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.

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