female longevity(WOMENSENEWS)–Women outlive men, while lagging behind.

That was the parallax view presented last week at an annual summing up by the National Council for Research on Women, a New York-based network of 100 leading U.S. research policy and advocacy centers, which held a panel here at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Since 1980, women have lived longer than men in all parts of the world. In low-income countries, women now live 20 years longer, on average, than they did in 1980. In addition, over half a billion women have joined the world labor force.

At the same time, however, girls and women are often still treated as more expendable.

"One of the most egregious gaps is the number of missing women," said Jeni Klugman, director of gender and development at the World Bank, the Washington-based international organization that works with 187 member countries to reduce poverty and provide loans and assistance to stimulate development. "About 3.9 million women are lost each year because of the excess deaths of girls and women relative to men in low and middle income countries."

About two-fifths of girls are never born because of preferences for sons in China and India. One-sixth die in early childhood and over one-third die in their reproductive years.

"Unfortunately, the number of girls who die in early childhood is growing in sub-Sahara Africa," Klugman said. The same was true of child-bearing-age women in countries hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The panel digested two major reports: the World Bank’s 2012 report on Gender Equality and Development, a special study by the development-funding group; and the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, a sixth annual installment.

The World Economic Forum’s report found that although 88 percent of the 135 countries it surveyed had legislation prohibiting gender-based workplace discrimination, women’s participation at the higher levels of decision making in businesses had lagged. To overcome this disparity, 20 percent of the countries mandated female corporate board representation.

"The evidence on quotas is mixed," said Iris Bohnet, academic dean and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass. "Some companies perform better when their boards and teams of managers have a certain quota of women while others are less effective."

Stereotype-Battling Preferred

She noted that a better solution is to change the mindset and find alternatives to the stereotypes, such as women can’t do math, that have kept women out of certain positions.

"Research also shows that it is useful to give women support as they move up to the highest levels, not just assistance at the entry level," Bohnet said. "Despite the challenges, I remain optimistic that women will continue to make progress."

The World Bank 2011 report found disparities in women’s access to economic opportunities and control over household resources.

"Although girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 countries and in universities in 60 countries, female enrollment remains lower in many sub-Saharan countries and some parts of South Asia," Klugman said.

While few nations restrict women from political office, the gender gap is wide in legislatures around the world. "The number of women holding positions in parliament was 17 percent in 2009, up from 10 percent in 1995," said Klugman.

Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women, pointed out women’s larger share of poverty. "About 1.2 billion people worldwide–70 percent of them women–live in poverty," Basch said. "In the United States, the poverty rate of women rose to 14.5 percent in 2010, the highest in 17 years, so we have a way to go before gender equity is achieved."

Another disparity is domestic violence. While many higher-income countries have enacted laws, some developing nations still condone wife beating if the woman argues with her husband, refuses to have sex, or burns food.

Countries Are Taking Steps

Countries are beginning to address these disparities, according to the World Economic Forum’s report, which found that 55 percent of 135 surveyed countries took steps to reduce gender gaps last year.

The Geneva-based nonprofit foundation ranked countries according to salaries, work-force participation, access to education, representation in decision-making structures and life expectancy and survival.

"No country has yet to achieve gender equality, although the Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) were at the top, having closed over 80 percent of their gender gaps," said Saadia Zahidi, director and head of constituents and co-author of the sixth annual report. "Countries at the bottom, such as Chad, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have closed about 50 percent."

"International scores for health and education were the most encouraging with 96 percent of the health gaps and 93 percent of the educational gaps already closed," said Zahidi. "Around the globe, women’s economic and political participation continues to have the largest gaps."

The United States ranked 17th on the list, moving up from the 19th spot last year and 31st in 2009.

"One of the major disparities for American women is the pay gap," said Racquel Russell, special assistant to the president for mobility and opportunity in the White House Domestic Policy Council. "Despite gains in education and labor force participation, women earn 77 cents of every dollar paid to men. To overcome this disparity, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and has supported the Paycheck Fairness Act and legislation to attract and retain women in fields, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics that pay higher salaries."

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Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.