Women 'face barriers to economic power'

UN equality survey: Britain in 13th place in table of 130 countries but loses marks for low female participation in business and politics
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The United Kingdom is rated 13th in a UN survey of sexual equality in 130 countries which says that despite advances in health and education, the economic and political status of women still languishes well below that of men in all countries.

"Over the past 20 years, doors to education and health opportunities have opened rapidly for women but the doors to economic and political power are barely ajar," says the report, billed as the most comprehensive international study of gender discrimination ever undertaken. "In no society do women fare as well as men."

The UN Human Development Report, which will provide the text for next month's world women's conference in Beijing, reveals that while the gender gap has more than halved since 1970, women still represent 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion living in poverty. Sweden tops the table. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, director of the UN Development Programme's Africa Bureau, said gender inequality had little to do with a country's wealth. Sweden and its Nordic neighbours - Norway, Finland and Denmark - led the sexual equality table because they have attacked discrimination through political policies and quotas.

Britain's general quality of life rating for men and women -18th in the table - actually rises to 13th when the level of sexual equality is considered but it falls to 19th when the level of female participation in politics and business is measured. Cuba, Hungary, Barbados, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago are among those countries calculated to have a higher degree of female participation in politics and business.

In the UK, only 7.4 per cent of all parliamentary seats are held by women; a striking figure for an industrialised country when the worldwide average is 10 per cent. Our rate of parliamentary political participation is just above the 7.3 per cent achieved in India. By contrast, half of the cabinet positions in Sweden are now held by women against a international average of just 6 per cent.

The UN calculates that "unpaid, unrecognised and undervalued" women's work is worth 11 trillion dollars a year, which if recognised, would lead to women becoming the major or equal breadwinners in most societies. While women do 53 per cent of the work in the world they are only paid for one- third.

Arab states have made most progress in improving female literacy rates but a better education is not helping women into politics and business. China's sexual equality rating is 10 places above Saudi Arabia's although its real per capita income is only one-fifth as large. France, Japan, Luxembourg and Spain share with developing countries the distinction that their women constitute less than one-seventh of their top managers.

Trinidad and Tobago offer significantly more political and economic opportunities to women than the UK, Switzerland, Hungary, Spain, Japan and France. Japan rates third in the overall quality of life rating but its position falls to eight on the sexual equality scale and to 27 when the participation of women in politics and business is calculated.

Mrs Johnson Sirleaf said that even in countries wracked by civil war and violence, like Sierra Leone - which languishes with many other African countries at the bottom of the sexual equality table - women's rights could not be dismissed as mere luxury. "In many African countries, women are strong at grass roots. Many complain that men are the cause of their countries' problems."