Achieving gender equality is a commendable goal and has been incorporated in the 17 recently adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Gender equality, however, should not be used to detract from efforts to improve the equality of women and men across countries rather than just inside countries.
Indeed, differences between men and women in key socioeconomic areas, such as poverty, nutrition, housing, education, income, pensions, health and political participation, are typically greater across countries than within them. A comparison of selected developmental indicators for Nigeria and Norway, for example, illustrates the sizable gender differences between the countries relative to those within each country.
|Selected Male-Female Differences Between and Within Nigeria and Norway
|Life expectancy at birth (years)
|Under 5 mortality (per 1,000 births)
|Primary school enrollment (percent)
|Secondary school enrollment (percent)
|Earned income (US dollars)
Consequently, the biggest gains in improving the daily lives of men and women in the poorer areas of the world should be addressed by raising the levels of gender equality across countries and not simply inside them. It’s a critical distinction to make when developmental levels for countries are low.
In the crucial area of education, for example, virtually all boys and girls in developed countries complete primary schooling. At the secondary levels and above, women now outnumber men in most rich countries.
By contrast, among the least-developed countries, or LDCs, the proportions completing primary school are comparatively low. Approximately a quarter of children of primary school age in least-developed countries are not enrolled in an educational institution. Of those enrolled at the primary level, the average sex ratio approaches parity, with 94 girls per 100 boys. The principal aim for the least-developed countries should not be equally low levels of primary school enrollment for boys and girls but high levels of primary school completion for both sexes that are similar to those in developed countries.
Another important area to develop across regions is infant and child mortality. Among least- developed countries, the chances of a boy or girl dying before age 5 are high. Roughly 1 in 12 children born in a very poor country dies before the child’s fifth birthday. This is 14 times greater than the rate in developed countries. Again, the primary goal should be low death rates for girls and boys similar to those of developed nations.
In addition, key group differences in countries regarding education, ethnicity and income are typically larger than differences simply between men and women. For example, the median annual earnings for full-time wage and salary work for men and women in the United States in 2014 were approximately $45,300 and $37,400, respectively, a difference of about $8,000.
By contrast, the US median annual income of chief executives in management, business and finance was $105,200, yielding a $64,000 difference, or eight times the average gender difference. Here again, the biggest gains in narrowing income disparities is not done by closing the income gap between men and women — although certainly desirable — but by making income distribution less skewed and more equitable, especially for men and women at the lower levels of income distribution.
Moreover, in many instances the objective should not be gender equality within countries but for markedly improved levels of quality of life for both men and women. For example, with regard to smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness, the desired goals should not be equality between men and women. On the contrary, the goals should be to reduce high rates of these afflictions and ills to the lowest possible levels for both men and women.
Under the goal of gender equality No. 5 in the SDGs, one target is to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.” It is unclear what precisely is entailed in ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health services. Such health services, for example, may be available in a given country, but many men and women may not have the money to pay for them, and the government may be unable or unwilling to provide the services at no cost.
Also, gender equality regarding reproductive rights raises difficult issues. For instance, how does equality of reproductive rights operate when one party chooses to have an abortion and the other partner objects? Similarly, if women are permitted to become pregnant and have a baby through artificial insemination, should surrogacy be available to men who wish to have a child of their own?
In other circumstances, gender equality may be difficult to achieve because of inherent biological differences between men and/or the lack of clarity concerning the intended desired outcome of gender equality. Women, for example, have lower mortality rates than men, resulting in higher life expectancies. Yet, the legal retirement age in many countries, such as in Argentina, Austria, Chile, China, Israel, Italy, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam, is lower for women than for men. In no country is the retirement age higher for women than for men.
Another consequence of the female mortality advantage relevant to gender equality is that women account for much higher proportions among the elderly population. As they reach an advanced age, these women, many of whom have survived their spouses, find themselves in tough financial and personal circumstances and have special needs for support, nursing care and health services.
No doubt, some policy experts may wish to limit the focus of gender differences to within countries and object to changing the emphasis to differences across countries. The danger, however, in restricting gender equality to within countries is that equality between the sexes may be reached only at low levels of social, economic and political development.
Refocusing the goal of gender equality to sex differences across countries is more likely to raise the living standards of billions of men and women to heights already achieved throughout most developed countries.
Joseph Chamie recently retired as research director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York and as editor of the International Migration Review. He was formerly the director of the United Nations Population Division, having worked at the UN on population and development for more than a quarter century.
Chamie has written numerous population studies for the UN and, under his own name, written studies about population growth, fertility, estimates and projections, international migration and population and development policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Migration Policy Institute. He lives in the New York metro area.