Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 03/2012

Women's economic opportunity 2012: A global index and ranking from the Economist Intelligence Unit

March 2012

Economist Intelligence Unit


Women are a key driver of economic growth. In the second half of the 20th century, the entry of women into the workforce helped to propel most of the world’s developed economies. In the United States, an expanded pool of workers—from the emergence of the baby-boom generation and the rising number of women in the workplace—added nearly 2 percentage points a year to economic growth. Since 1995, the narrowing gap between male and female employment has accounted for a quarter of Europe’s annual GDP growth.  Today, women in the developing world are poised to have a similar impact—if they can be properly educated, equipped and empowered. Women are the world’s greatest undeveloped source of labour: nearly one-half of working-age women are not currently active in the formal global economy.3 By working disproportionately in unpaid labour, particularly in developing countries, women traditionally have had less access than men to income and resources. Thus, they are often less productive than men, which holds back the overall economy. As governments worldwide seek short- and long-term fi xes to waning economic performance, expanding opportunities for the 1.5bn women not employed in the formal sector will take on even greater importance. But simply increasing the number of working women will not be enough. The poorest regions of the world have among the highest levels of female labour force participation, and poverty in those regions persists.  Rather, to realise greater returns from female economic activity, the legal, social, fi nancial and educational barriers hindering women’s productivity need to be removed. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that giving male and female farmers equal access to time- and labour-saving tools could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as 2.5-4%. Women who are better educated, healthier and have greater control over household financial resources are also more likely to invest time in their children’s health and education—an investment in the workforce of tomorrow.