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Beaten by Burundi: New gender gap report shows Australia falling far behind

Australia has a lot to learn when it comes to closing the gender gap.

We could start by taking a look at what's going on in the Nordic region and even in our own backyard in New Zealand and the Philippines. According to a new report from the World Economic Forum, Australia is not even in the top 20 when it comes to closing the gap between men and women.

We're ranked 25 on the list, a dubious honour when you consider that Australia's actually gone backwards. We were 15 in 2006 when the report was first undertaken, 23 in 2011 and 2010, 20 in 2009, 21 in 2008 and 17 in 2007.

While we're well ahead on educational attainment and health, we're particularly lagging on metrics used to determine economic participation and opportunity, as well as political empowerment.

It's one thing to see women getting an education, another to see that education fully utilised.

To determine a final score for each country, the report measures national gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity (including wages), educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. It uses this to allow comparisons between countries with different income-per-person ratios, and to offer a look at global progress. In the 2012 report, 85 of the 135 countries measured were found to have tightened their gender gaps over the last year.

But for Australia, the report highlights just how slow the rate of change for women actually is. As we know, our gender pay gap still hovers around 17.5%, and women still account for just 15.1% of board positions on the ASX 200. Our ranking on gender gap subindexes within the WEF report highlights the problem areas.

While we are ranked 22 on economic participation and opportunity, our rank drops to 44 when it comes to the labour force participation metric, and 68 on wage equality for similar work. We are ranked 42 on political empowerment, and found to have dropped two places overall this year due to a small decrease in women in ministerial positions.

The report also shows how much work there is to do in our own region where Australia is not leading the way. Asia Pacific ranked second last of the six regions reported on, despite New Zealand and the Philippines making the top eight.

The Nordic region is clearly doing something right with five countries in the top seven. Here, the report found the region is maximising the return on investment of education by closing the gender gap in workforce participation.

So, how have countries like Iceland, Finland and Norway actually made significant progress over the last few years?

Predominantly, it comes down to their policy work in making it easier for parents to combine work and family, which leads to higher participation rates of women, more shared childcare and a more equitable distribution of housework.

These economies also have mandatory paid parental leave for both genders, tax incentives and post-maternity leave programs to help women return to work. Incredibly, the report finds these countries have actually seen rising birth rates in line with the improved policies.

There's something in all that.

World Economic Forum's top 25:

1. Iceland
2. Finland
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. Ireland
6. New Zealand
7. Denmark
8. Philippines
9. Nicaragua
10. Switzerland
11. Netherlands
12. Belgium
13. Germany
14. Lesotho
15. Latvia
16. South Africa
17. Luxembourg
18. United Kingdom
19. Cuba
20. Austria
21. Canada
22. United States
23. Mozambique
24. Burundi
25. Australia

This article first appeared on Women's Agenda.

Engel Schmidl

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