6 Things We Can Learn From Other Countries About Gender Equality

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When people think about countries where women's rights are lagging, the United States is not often a country that immediately comes to mind. But while women in the U.S. can vote, drive cars, attend school without fear of retribution, and walk the streets without having to be accompanied by a male guardian, the country lags behind other countries in more than one area when it comes to gender equality. In fact, the U.S. can learn a lot about gender equality from other countries.

Although the U.S. is often touted as the land of equal opportunity, the country doesn't even fall among the top 30 gender equal nations in the world. Rather the U.S. is ranked 45 by the World Economic Forum. At the top of the list for eight consecutive years is Iceland, due in part to a high political empowerment for women, a generous national policy on guaranteed paternity coverage, and a fully-closed educational gender gap.

The flagging or "missing rights" of U.S. women hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2015, a delegation from the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice concluded that "in the US, women fall behind international standards as regards their public and political representation, their economic and social rights and their health and safety protections."

But just what exactly can the U.S. learn from other countries about gender equality? Here are six areas where the U.S. might benefit from following another countries' lead:

1. Political Empowerment

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While 2016 brought the United States its first female major party presidential candidate, the numbers behind women's political representation remain bleak. Although women make up roughly 51 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise only 19.4 percent of Congress, a number that represents a historical high for the country. Of the 535 member body only 104 are women with 21 of them serving in the Senate and 83 serving in the House of Representatives. In fact, when it comes to the percentage of women in national parliaments, the United States ranked 104th out of 193 countries, according to a January report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Rwanda sits at the top of the list with women comprising 61.3 percent of its national parliament followed by Bolivia, Cuba, Iceland, and Nicaragua.

But women aren't just absent at the national level. According to Rutgers Center For American Women and Politics, women currently make up just 24.8 percent of state legislatures. Altogether these numbers have contributed to the United States being ranked 73 in political empowerment in the World Economic Forum's 2016 report on the Global Gender Gap. Moreover, a recent study by Pew Research Center found the United States is not among the 70 countries to have had a female leader – although in 13 of those countries women have served for less than a year.

2. Equal Pay

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The United States was ranked 66th in wage equality for similar work in a 2016 report on The Global Gender Gap by the World Economic Forum. When it comes to wage equality, women in Bahrain, Botswana, Burundi, Cambodia, Egypt, Finland, Iceland, Malaysia, Rwanda, and Qatar fare better than those in the United States. According to the Institute For Women's Policy Research (IWPR), full-time, year-round female workers made 20 percent less than their male counterparts in 2015, earning only 80 cents for every dollar a man earned. It's important to note the gap is wider for women of color. Along with helping to advance gender equality, equal pay would have significant benefits for women, helping to cut the poverty rate among working women by "more than half," according to a report by the IWPR.

3. Guaranteed Paid Maternity Leave

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The United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. While the Family Medical Leave Act requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide 12 weeks of leave following the birth of a newborn, nothing states that time must be paid and so it more often than not isn't. Even more embarrassing? Many countries, including Saudi Arabia, guarantee paid leave to both mothers and fathers. In fact, a UN delegation sent to the United States in December 2015 to evaluate gender equality in the country said "the lack of accommodation in the workplace to women's pregnancy, birth and post-natal needs is shocking." They called the lack of guaranteed paid maternity leave "unthinkable in any society, and certainly one of the richest societies in the world."

4. Guarantee Gender Equality & Rights For Women

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In 1979 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the most comprehensive international agreement on advancing women's rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social spheres. The treaty establishes national action to end discrimination of women, advance efforts toward gender equality, and combat violence against women. And while 193 U.N. members have ratified the agreement, seven have not. Among those seven nations the United States is the only democratic country to not ratify CEDAW.

While the United States has not rejected CEDAW outright – three presidents have pushed for it – Congress has essentially kept it shelved. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended it for ratification in 2002, the treaty has never come before the full Senate for a ratification vote and is opposed by conservative groups and the religious right. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution is part of the roughly 26 percent of the world's constitutions that do not explicitly guarantee gender equality.

5. Economic Equality

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While women made up more than 51 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2015, their participation tends to be concentrated in industries where wages are relatively low, according to the World Economic Forum. A report by Pew Research Center found that just 5.2 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies were women. Furthermore, a 2013 report from Grant Thornton found women comprised only 20 percent of senior corporate leaders. According to Fortune, the United States even lags behind many countries just beginning to shape their economy when it comes to female leadership in business. China, Estonia, Vietnam, and Botswana are among the countries that have surpassed the United States when it comes to female leadership in business.

But women also appear to be impacted by poverty at a disproportionate rate. A 2015 report on the Status of Women in the States by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that while millennial women were more likely to have a college degree when compared to their male counterparts, they were also more likely to experience higher poverty rates and lower wage earnings.

6. Gun Violence Against Women

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Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries, a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found. For example, in Japan, a country with a near zero-tolerance for gun ownership, there were just six reported gun deaths in 2014 compared to more than 12,500 reported in the United States that same year.

While gun control remains a controversial topic in American politics, CAP concluded state and federal governments could do more to protect women from gun violence. It's a sentiment that has been echoed by the U.N. delegation sent to evaluate gender equality in the United States, which recommended the country pass a national law barring those convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms.

Although the U.S. may be leaps and bounds ahead of countries where women have no reproductive rights, are barred from pursuing an education, or are forced into early marriages, there's still plenty of room for advancement when it comes to gender equality.