11/02/2011 04:45 EDT | Updated 01/02/2012 05:12 EST

Canadian Women Politically Stifled, Suggest World Economic Forum Report

Canada lags behind countries like Burundi, Latvia and Guyana when it comes to how much political power women wield relative to men, a new report suggests.

The survey of 135 countries by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum found that Canadian women have nearly closed the gap with men in educational attainment and health, but not in the economic realm, nor — by a wide margin — in politics.

Canada places 18th overall in the annual rankings, an improvement from 31st in 2008, but still comes in behind Lesotho, the Philippines and South Africa.

Four Nordic countries — Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden — top the chart in promoting equality of the sexes, and the United States continues its ascent, rising from 19th to 17th place.

"We often make an assumption, not just in Canada but in other countries, that we've achieved equality for women and we can move on to talk about other issues," said Deborah Gillis, senior vice-president and head of the Canadian office of Catalyst, an international advocacy group for women in business.

"This is a real reminder and wakeup call to the business community and leaders at all levels in Canada that we have a lot of work to do."

Gender equality 'key' to economic growth

For health and education, which include factors like university participation and life expectancy, the World Economic Forum report found Canada has closed 97.8 and 99.9 per cent of the gender gap, respectively.

But in business — where the study measured inequality in wages and management positions — Canadian women have only about three-quarters of the attainment level of men. The gender inequality is starkest in politics, where, judging by the number of female legislators and cabinet ministers, Canada has closed just 21 per cent of the gap, placing it behind Sri Lanka, Uganda, Burundi and Latvia, among others.

"Women remain underrepresented in those roles. The reason includes, first of all, the lack of access to networks. It includes stereotypes that have no impact on how leadership is defined," Gillis said.

"And it certainly includes, in our most recent research, the fact that women do not have the same access to senior-level sponsors who advocate on their behalf for important promotions and development opportunities and so on, so we see a gap in the career paths and experience of men and women."

Gillis and Catherine Swift, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, both said the disproportionately low number of women in senior corporate positions is worrisome not just from a human rights standpoint, but because it's economically harmful.

"Our research shows that more women in leadership roles on boards of directors and senior leadership teams points, for instance, to organizations having stronger financial performance," Gillis said.

Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum's female leaders and gender parity program, said the world as a whole has closed about 60 per cent of the gap in economic participation, and agreed that improving that number is "directly correlated with increased economic competitiveness."

"Gender equality is the key to unlocking potential and stimulating economies," Zahidi said.

'Missed opportunity'

No country has entirely closed the gap between men and women, the report says. Iceland has done the best job; women there have 85 per cent of the overall level of attainment of men across politics, business, health and education.

But not even Iceland has closed more than 70 per cent of the gender gap in the political realm alone. The global average is under 20 per cent.

"A world where women make up less than 20 per cent of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential," Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, said in a statement.

Swift said Canada's poor showing in the study's assessment of female political achievement could be because Canadian women have more career opportunities available to them than women in countries with less gender disparity in government.

"When the options are more numerous for women, that isn't necessarily one they gravitate toward in a developed country. When the economy's better, for all kinds of reasons they seem to not choose the political route. I suspect, too, in less developed countries a political position has more prestige than it does in Canada."

The World Economic Forum brings together political, academic and business elites for annual gathering in the Swiss Alps at Davos — whence the term Davos Man, the archetypical rich, white cosmopolitan male. When asked about this, Gillis declined to comment on the possible irony of the forum producing research on women's equality.