WORDS like "quotas" and "preferential hiring" strike terror in the hearts of American politicians these days. But elsewhere in the world, these accouterments of affirmative action have helped create significant new opportunities for women, according to a major report issued yesterday by the United Nations.
Take Norway. During the 1970s, the Scandinavian country's political parties began instituting quotas to guarantee that a minimum number of women would be on nominating lists before elections. In 1980, women made up only 24 percent of Norway's legislature. Today, 40 percent of its members are women, compared with only 10 percent in the United States.
"The biggest gains in women's empowerment have come in countries that have affirmative-action programs. The smallest gains have come in countries that don't," says Mahbub Haq, a former finance minister of Pakistan who is the principal author of the UN Development Program's sixth annual "Human Development Report."
Norway remains an exception to the rule that the economic and political status of women worldwide lags far behind that of men. But in the areas of education and health, women are making rapid strides forward. In education alone, according to the UNDP report, the gender gap in developing nations has been more than halved in the two decades since 1970.
"Education was the first frontier that was crossed. That battle is being won," says Dr. Haq, who notes that in 32 countries more women than men are enrolled in higher education.
Women make up 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty today. Getting them out of poverty, says the report, will make a direct and significant contribution to the world's social and economic development.
The report's conclusions will be echoed in Beijing, where 50,000 official delegates and representatives of nongovernmental organizations are about to converge for the start of the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women.
Far from being nonproductive, says Haq, such conferences, dating back to 1975, have put considerable pressure on national governments to increase spending on women's health and education.
Following the first international women's conference, which was held in Mexico City, most national governments began keeping separate statistics on women, enabling governments and international organizations like UNDP to monitor progress on women's issues.
The report's "Gender Development Index" ranks 130 countries for which comparable data are available on women's literacy, life expectancy, health, education, and income status. Among developed nations, the four Nordic countries - Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark - ranked highest.
Barbados, Hong Kong, Singapore, Uruguay, and Thailand are among the highest ranking developing countries.
The report also includes a "Gender Empowerment Index," which ranks 116 nations on women's access to top management positions in the public and private sector.
The Nordic countries topped this list as well, each exceeding the goal of 30 percent women's participation in political and economic decisionmaking set by the UN two decades ago. Worldwide, women hold an average of 10 percent of legislative seats and 6 percent of Cabinet positions.
Women's participation in the work force has been abetted by a simple but profound development that has occurred since the industrial revolution: More and more jobs require intellectual power rather than muscle power, putting women on a more competitive footing with men. The UNDP study notes that nations do not have to be rich to close the gender gap. Some of the most progressive countries include some of the poorest. "With limited resources but a strong political commitment, China, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe raised adult literacy to 70 percent or more," the report notes. "By contrast, several richer countries lag behind."
The report, which is published in 11 languages, calls for a five-point strategy to close the global gender gap, including the adoption of specific policies to overcome legal discrimination that limits women's access to credit, property, inheritances, and divorce.
The report also echoes the call made at last September's UN Social Summit in Copenhagen for governments and international donors to dedicate 20 percent of their budgets to social spending, including family-planning and nutrition programs, primary health care, and safe drinking water.
Such increases can be partially offset by "judicious" cuts in military spending, the report says.
The report challenges the perception that women make little contribution to national economic life. In fact, women work longer hours than men do in nearly every country, contributing trillions of dollars worth of labor that, the report says, is "underpaid, unrecognized, and undervalued."
"There has been a quiet male conspiracy not to include women in national income accounts," says Haq. "If women's work were accurately reflected in national statistics, it would shatter the myth that men are the main breadwinners of the world."