1991 – India was engaged in an intense debate on reservations in jobs and educational institutions for members of the backward castes. I tried to engage a woman State Senator in the debate. She did not bat an eyelid to come up with her response:

“If there must be reservation, then it should be for the one sect in society that has been suppressed for generations across the globe and that is, the woman.”

I did not follow her argument, especially its relevance in the late 20th century. I strongly believed that in the post-modern era, women could choose their destiny without any obstacles – even religious obstacles would eventually crumble. The State Senator definitely had it wrong.

But 20 years later, having stepped on several continents, I realized that the pace of change was excruciatingly slow – women still couldn’t vote in one country (Saudi Arabia) and religious/cultural obstacles still stood strong. And in the developed world, there was an invisible obstacle – an obstacle that prevented women from getting to the very top – the ‘glass ceiling’.

It was time to ask women themselves about their tryst with the obstacles and take a closer look at the data as well. Would the data support the perception? The result was not surprising – the feedback from women was in line with the data from the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report of 2011. Women faced challenges and these could be summed up as biology, historical baggage and the invisible glass ceiling.

The Perception/Experience

A majority of the survey respondents (65%) were from the United States. Other respondents included residents from France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, India and Nigeria.

Top 2 obstacles in way of women’s empowerment

Across the demographic, what did the respondents consider the top 2 obstacles in way of women’s empowerment?

Education and access to health were the least of the concerns. The overwhelming majority picked historical/cultural factors and lack of political representation.

Gender-specific Obstacles

Historical/Cultural factors seemed to span across the lifetime. This was evident in the responses to the question – “what obstacles did you run into growing up, because of your gender?”

The response in this section was in line with the choice of the top 2 obstacles – the historical/cultural bias against women seemed to be the theme. This seemed to have manifested in the several ways – sometimes parents paying less attention to the education and personal development of the girl child or laying rules for what the girl child could or could not do.

However, across the geographic expanse, from North America through Africa and Asia, women seemed to have consistently experienced gender based discrimination at work. The responses ranged for expectations of sexual favors from women in Nigeria, to denial of promotions despite better results than their male colleagues, in the US. There was another disturbing theme that a great majority of the respondents highlighted – inappropriate behavior from male colleagues.

Changes needed in the next 5 years

What changes were needed in the country of residence over the next 5 years to facilitate the empowerment of women? Here there seemed to a unanimous vote for equality in pay, breaking the glass ceiling and have more women legislators.

One comment though stood out – it wished that women legislators be respected for their femininity instead of having to try to be masculine to have their voice heard.

The Statistics

Was the data in line with the issues the women expressed? I was skeptical of finding data that proved the existence of a glass ceiling or historical/cultural issues. But lo and behold! The data does point to a glass ceiling. And it is amazing to see how consistent the pattern is across various nations. The focus of the data set was on educational attainment, economic participation/opportunity and political empowerment.

For the first data set, I picked up a set of countries that were in the top 25 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ratings of 2011. That means, the gender gap was the narrowest in these countries. The data points were the ratio of women to men – in secondary education, tertiary education, as professional/technical workers, as senior officials/managers, estimated earned income and membership of Parliament.

The top 25: A glass ceiling

The profile of the top 25 performers with respect to women’s empowerment displays a distinct glass ceiling. After attaining high levels of education and outnumbering men in the professional and technical trades, the chart above shows a sharp drop when it comes to management positions and income parity with men. And it drops further when we look at women in Parliament. Among these countries, the United States has the least variance across the variance categories, except political representation. This essentially means that the educated woman has more economic opportunities compared to the rest of the countries in the top 25. However, it fares the worst when it comes to political representation. This essentially means that we have men writing legislation for women in the United States – and when that happens, a war on women is a possibility.

The rich nations – Japan seems a long way off

Is women’s empowerment directly influenced by the wealth of a nation? Not really, because a nation could be rich, yet mired in a historical/cultural bias against women. The nations picked up for this sample included the ones having an annual per capita income of at least US $ 30,000. In this bracket, both Kuwait and Japan fared poorly with respect to women leading in the economic and political sectors. Kuwait steeped sharply against women in economy and polity, even though women outdid men in terms of education. Japan however, fared poorly across all sectors. The women to men ratio stayed consistently below 1, getting close to 0 for business leadership and political representation.

The bottom 25: A steep variance

The story stays the same when it comes to the bottom 25. The only difference is the steepness of the empowerment curve across the various factors. Essentially, even though women stay at par with their male counterparts in education, yet they are almost non-existent on the economic and the political front.


So what factors differentiate the top 25 from the bottom 25?

Education access for women seems to be steady across our sample set of nations, though the top 25 fare better with respect to tertiary education.


With respect to economic opportunity, the chart shows a steep drop as we move right towards the bottom 25. The interesting trend that comes across in this chart is that there seems to be a consistent gap between women’s participation in the economy and their income – their income being consistently on the lower side. Only Nepal bucks that trend – and for a poor nation with an annual per capita income of just US$ 1,079, that is remarkable.

And the same trend continues when it comes to leadership – business or political. Here though, the female-male ratio stays consistently below 1 and even touches 0 for Saudi Arabia in political representation for women. Nepal once again bucks the trend as we move towards the right on our chart. The United States does well over its competition with respect to women leaders in business, but a representation of only 20% in Parliament takes it to the lowest in the top 25.


Economic opportunity, income parity, business and political leadership are the key factors/issues for women in the 21st century. While the top 25 nations in the gender parity index have done well with respect to economic opportunity and political leadership, income parity and management/leadership positions are still core issues. This essentially points to the existence of a glass ceiling among the top 25.

The bottom 25, are at the bottom because of a lack of economic opportunity and political representation. Women in these areas still have not been able to shake off the historical/cultural baggage.

The core focus in the 21st century has to be on leadership – business and political. In the business arena, women have to break the glass ceiling – they already outnumber men in several professions. In the political arena, men still heavily outnumber women and that has to change – it has to, so women can write legislation for themselves. As awareness of the glass ceiling improves, so will the resolve to overcome it. If the 20th century belonged to the women pioneers, the 21st should belong to the glass ceiling breakers. Hopefully, the glass will be completely shattered by the next decade.