Quantifying gender bias

A new initiative that collects data on gender discrimination around the world.

A country that forces women to marry at 14 or 15 years of age probably also discourages female entrepreneurship and participation in the economy. So goes the thinking behind a new Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) initiative, the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which collects data on gender discrimination around the world. The OECD Development Centre launched the database on March 8, International Women's Day.

According to lead researcher Johannes Jütting, the database goes beyond standard indicators of gender equality such as income and political participation, and gives statistical value to deep-rooted cultural norms. As Jütting explains: “If [traditionally] a woman has no access to property rights, she cannot get land, and if she has no access to loans, then giving microcredit is very difficult.”

The database assigns numeric values to more than 10 cultural and traditional practices grouped into four categories. “Family code” includes marriage customs such as polygamy. “Physical integrity” includes female genital mutilation. “Civil liberties” include whether women can leave their house unaccompanied by a male. And “ownership rights” means, for example, a woman's ability to hold bank loans.

The database covers 162 countries; Sudan is at the bottom and Sweden at the top. Interestingly, Canada ranks sixteenth, but Jütting cautions against reading too much into OECD countries' scores, as they barely differ. (The presence or absence of legislation on violence against women accounts for the difference.)

Developed or not, all countries have an incentive to care about this database: experience has shown that countries with gender equality do better economically. Jütting points to one example: in the '50s Tunisia changed its family code to forbid polygamy and modernize divorce, and the country now has much better female participation in the workforce than most other countries in Africa. “If you treat women badly, that reduces growth,” says Jütting.