Expert's take: Most of the world’s women and girls struggle with large gaps in equality and empowerment

In our new joint report, UN Women and UNDP have proposed the Women's Empowerment Index (WEI) and the Global Gender Parity Index (GGPI) as twin indices for measuring the human development of women and girls. Taken together, these two indices offer a comprehensive picture of women’s empowerment and gender equality.  

Expert's take: Most of the world’s women and girls struggle with large gaps in equality and empowerment

Each index addresses a different set of issues. The WEI focuses solely on women, measuring their power and freedom to make choices and seize opportunities in life. The focus here is on women’s level of achievement, irrespective of men’s. The GGPI, on the other hand, evaluates progress on closing the gender gap. It measures the status of women relative to men in core dimensions of human development and exposes gaps in achieving parity between women and men. Both are equally important and together provide a more complete picture of countries’ achievements in women’s empowerment and gender equality. 

Global indices are not meant to encompass all the issues relevant for women and girls’ wellbeing and empowerment, but they should help us to better understand when progress has been made in one area but not in another. The indices shed light on the complex challenges faced by women worldwide in key areas of human development, including barriers to accessing higher education, achieving good health, and pursuing a higher quality of life. Other areas include freedom from violence and equal opportunities to participate in leadership and decision-making. This multi-dimensional perspective is crucial for a more holistic picture of progress. 

What we learn from the indices is that across all these dimensions, women’s full potential remains unrealized. The gaps and deficits remain wide, with no country fully realizing women’s empowerment   or closing the gender gap. Globally, women are empowered to achieve, on average, only 60 per cent of their full potential, as measured by the WEI. Their opportunities compared to those of men also remain subpar, as measured by the GGPI: Women achieve, on average, 28 per cent less than men across key human development dimensions. 

The report findings are sobering. Less than 1 percent of women and girls live in countries with high women’s empowerment and a small gender gap. More than 90 percent of the world’s female population—3.1 billion women and girls—live in countries characterized by low or middle women’s empowerment and low or middle performance in achieving gender parity.  

In addition, about 8 percent of women and girls live in countries with low or middle women’s empowerment but high performance in achieving gender parity. This suggests that small gender gaps do not automatically translate into high women’s empowerment. And although countries with higher human development tend to have smaller gender gaps, the new indices also suggest that higher human development alone is insufficient to empower women and girls and bring about gender equality. 

These new indices are experimental and draw on existing data. However, there are many missing dimensions that are important, and the indices only cover 114 countries with data so far. Improved production and use of gender data is critical to ensure other relevant dimensions (such as unpaid care and domestic work, gender and environment, etc.) and more countries are included in future editions of the indices. Moreover, at the national level, data disaggregation by region and sub-group will be critical to ensure that the challenges of marginalized women and girls are identified and addressed. 

Composite indices like the WEI and the GPPI are meant as “signaling devices” that provide policymakers and citizens with information to evaluate choices, measure development performance and compare themselves with other countries. Like all data, the value of the joint indices is determined by the extent to which they are used to inform the development of policies and programmes.  

These indices are a key contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stock-taking moment at the 2023 SDG Summit and a means of furthering the efforts to achieve SDG 5 on gender equality. Together they expose the defining challenge of our time and a key barrier to achieving the SDGs, including SDG 5 to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. When world leaders meet in September to discuss measures to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs, they should use these results as motivation for more investments and transformative policies to support the advancement of all women and girls in their diversity.