Changing the World by Changing the Gender Gap

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mathematics and statistics used to be boring to me. Then, my husband introduced me to the TV Show Num3rs, which is about how mathematics helps solve crimes. It's an engaging show, based on true stories, about 2 brothers, one a mathematician and the other an FBI agent, who combine their work effectively to successful solutions, even sometimes saving lives. Recently Num3rs has interjected a female mathematician, also the love interest, who gets to show her prowess, solidly disputing former Harvard University President Larry Summers' claim that "women aren't good at math and science."

However, this blog is not about disputing "women are not good at math," because we know that's an old wives tale (or an old Larry Summers' tale). This blog is about the value mathematics and specifically statistics play in changing the world.

Math and statistics were a vital component in announcing the results of the Gender Gap Index 2009, presented by the World Economic Forum, which is busily at work trying to make the world a better place, well beyond its annual event in Davos. I attended a recent meeting at which the report was presented by its authors, Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard, Laura Tyson of University of California, Berkeley, and Saadia Zahidi, head of the Forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, and is based on hard data.

Why is a Gender Gap Index important, you ask? According to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum:

Girls and women make up on half of the world's population and without their engagement, empowerment and contribution, we cannot hope to achieve a rapid economic recovery nor effectively tackle global challenges such as climate change, food security and conflict.

This is supported by countless independent studies and reports that show that the gender equality is critical to a country's economic success. In fact, this WE Forum report demonstrates that engaging women equally with men in all aspects of life is imperative for economically competitive and prosperous societies.

As to be expected, there was good news and bad news in the Gender Gap Index. The good news is that the health and education gaps are being closed. The bad news is that overall, the economic and political gaps are not. The good news is that out of 115 countries measured, 99 have made progress in the last 4 years, however, the bad news is that 16 countries have deteriorated. It was good news for the Nordic countries. Iceland holds the top spot, flanked by Finland, Sweden and Norway with Denmark not far behind (#7). New Zealand(#5) and South Africa(#6) and Ireland (#8) are right up there, and surprising to me was the Philippines (#9) considering that most of Asia is quite low on the Index with China #60 and Japan #75 and India #114. Most of Western Europe (with a few exceptions including Italy) is in the top 20. The bad news is that the U.S is a disappointing #31 with Canada ahead of us at #25. In fact, in 2006 the U.S. was #23, so we've lost our position in 3 years. The authors of the report generously tell us that it could be that the U.S. is lower on the list due to the fact that other countries are doing better than us, not necessarily because we are doing worse. However, if you closely examine the report, it shows that while the U.S. has done well investing in education and health for women, we have not made progress in business or in politics. The fact that the U.S. is not closing the gap is surely no surprise to many leaders of organizations trying to increase the number of women at the top in government and business. Yet it is truly frustrating and embarrassing when we see in the report how well other countries are doing. To see the entire Gender Gap Index, go to and choose Women Leaders and Gender Gap.

Understanding the role math and statistics play in changing the world might be a good way to encourage young women to pursue math as a career. We know women are equally capable, however, their collective interest has not been strong. I predict that when we show women how they can change the world with mathematics, such as with the Gender Gap Index, many more will pursue it as their field of choice.