The WEF expects the recent decision to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia to hasten their participation in society. But women remain well behind global norms in political participation.
Although Saudi Arabia still ranks toward the bottom on the WEF global index of progress toward closing the gender gap in public and social life, it has improved three places over last year to rank 138th globally, and is among the biggest improvers in the years since the report first appeared, according to Saadia Zahidi, the WEF’s head of gender and education.
“Saudi Arabia has actually made the most progress in terms of female economic participation since the report began in 2006. Admittedly it came from a low base, but proportionately it has been significant,” she told Arab News.
“We will only see the effect of the decision to allow women to drive next year, but you can expect that to be positive,” she added.
Another WEF source said: “This report shows how Saudi Arabia is slowly but surely paving the way for a stronger society where women are given the opportunity to live their full potential. Also, keeping in mind all the reforms happening at the moment, next year’s report results seem to be even more promising.”
But it has not been a good year for women elsewhere in the world. For the first time since the WEF report was launched in 2006, the “gender gap” — a measure of progress toward gender equity according to economic, educational, health and political criteria — has widened compared to last year.
Calling it “a bad year in a good decade,” the WEF said that gender equality had decreased in the workplace and politics, especially in some countries with big populations like China and India, which affected the weighted totals.
Among the G-20 countries, France is ranked highest on gender parity at 11th place in the global ranking, followed by Germany (12), the UK (15), Canada (16), South Africa (19) and Argentina (34). The US drops four places to 49, while at the lower end of the group, no fewer than six countries rank at or above 100. These are China (100), India (108), Japan (114), the Republic of Korea (118), Turkey (131) and Saudi Arabia (138).
Overall, 68 percent of the global gender gap has been closed — down slightly from the previous two years — and it will still take 100 years to fully close that gap worldwide, the WEF said.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), at the current rate of progress, it will take 157 years to close the gap.
The country closest to fully bridging the gender gap is Iceland, followed by Norway and Finland. Rwanda, with a high number of female politicians, is in fourth place.
Among Arab countries, Tunisia is the highest ranked at 117, followed by the UAE at 120 and Bahrain at 126. “However out of the 17 countries covered by the index in the MENA region this year, 11 countries have improved their overall score compared to last year. The UAE is now very close to closing its gender gap in educational attainment,” the WEF said.
Zahidi said that the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia was an important factor toward greater female empowerment, but that other measures — like improved, safe public transport and remote digital working — would be needed to help lower-paid women.
She added that the history of Islam had many examples of powerful women who played a full part in business and society.