An Overview of Existing Reports on the Status of Women in the United States

There have been some excellent and innovative attempts in the past and the present to capture a relatively holistic overview of the situation of US women. The original Shriver Report of 2009 (with follow-ups in 2010 and 2014) is perhaps the earliest attempt at a more comprehensive look at US women. Even so, each Shriver Report had a specific theme, which, generally speaking, examined primarily the economic situation of women, and also the economic aspects of their unpaid caregiving labor. The Shriver Report effort has been unfortunately been discontinued. A 2020 PNAS article aiming to assess overall progress towards gender equality in the United States examines but five variables, all linked to either education or economic status.

There are, of course, the summative indices of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of UNDP, and the Gender Gap Index (GGI) of the World Economic Forum, but these provide a list of numbers that are pertinent, without filling in the context. The GII examines but five variables: the maternal mortality rate, the adolescent birth rate, the gap between male and female representation in the national legislature, the gap between men and women in terms of secondary education, and the gap between men and women concerning labor force participation. The GGI utilizes 14 indicators across four pillars, which pillars are economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.  Indicators include female labor force participation, perceptions of wage equality for women, estimated earned income for women, numbers of women as executives/managers/technical workers, literacy, enrollment in primary/secondary/tertiary education, sex ratio at birth, life expectancy, and women’s participation in government. While not in the Index, the WEF has begun compiling “complementary indicators” for the four pillars, which extend to expert opinions about the adequacy of women’s rights in law, maternal mortality, the year women got the right to vote (which is unaccountably 1965 for the U.S. according to WEF), and others. 

WEF’s complementary indicators rely on much of their content on the OECD’s Gender, Institutions, and Development Database (GID-DB). The four overarching areas covered in the database are discrimination in the family, restricted physical integrity, restricted economic access, and restricted civil liberties. This is much more expansive than either the GII or GGI.  This database, in turn, is used to create the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), which examines 25 variables. The GID-DB, which is updated every 3-5 years, contains numerous variables, which is praiseworthy. However, most of the variables are coded 0-25-50-75-100, based on expert opinion.  There is no prose rationale given at all for the assignment of these scores for a particular country. While multi-dimensional in coverage, it is opaque in meaning and interpretation.

Other databases, such as our own WomanStats Database, also examine multiple dimensions of women’s experience, but multivariate scales are limited in number, including scales on the physical security of women, inequity in family law, government frameworks for gender equality, and others. The scales are set up more for cross-national analysis. Thus, while this database does compile over 300 qualitative and quantitative indicators, it would be up to the researcher to put in the effort to mine this data to create the type of country report we are envisioning.

The World Bank has noteworthy data projects concerning women. The World Bank has a very useful Women, Business, and the Law (WBL) database, which covers laws concerning various aspects of a woman’s life, such as access to credit, pensions, pay, marriage laws, etc. However, it is limited to the actual law, and does not take into account actual practice on the ground.  For example, the WBL database notes there are no restrictions on US women’s movement outside her home.  Of course, in reality, women do face substantial harassment in public places in the U.S.  Under marriage, the WBL database notes that women are as free to divorce as men, but the situation is much more complicated than that in the U.S., and many tomes have been written on the discrimination faced by U.S. women in divorce and custody cases. The World Bank also has a Gender Data Portal, which includes not only all the WBL indicators, but also quantitative indicators relevant to, primarily, education and economic rights, and in addition including information on fertility and health. All SDG-5 indicators are also accessible in the World Bank’s Gender Data Portal. Coverage for the U.S. in the Gender Data Portal is actually spotty, however, and, as mentioned before, only numbers are given, with no narrative explaining the situation in context.

The UN collects several types of statistics on the situation of women.  SDG-5 is about gender equality, and there are six overall dimensions tracked, such as intimate partner violence, the economic situation of women, and women’s representation in government. Country profiles with information relevant to SDG-5 are available on a UN website.  The UN also compiles many different datasets that may contain components relevant to women, such as on population and health. Again we see the scatteredness of the data, and also the lack of information beyond the number presented. Most promising, UNWomen supports a Global Database on Violence Against Women; however, it is merely a repository of reports that have been submitted.

There are three U.S.-based efforts that have gone much further than this: the US Women, Peace, and Security Index of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS), the non-profit Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) Status of Women in the States Report, and WalletHub’s Best and Worst U.S. States for Women. The GIWPS Index is current and ongoing and examines twelve variables for each US state: 1) percent of women experiencing IPV in the last year, 2) rate per 100,000 women of female gun deaths, 3) healthcare affordability, 4) percent adult women not afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhood, 5) access to abortion services, 6) seven basic legal protections (minimum wage, paid parental leave, etc.), 7) male attitudes about traditional gender norms, 8) maternal mortality, 9) percentage of adult women working full-time, 10) percentage of women who are working poor, 11) percentage of women in the state’s legislature, and 12) percent of women aged 25 or older with a college degree. This is a tremendous effort, and despite being limited to twelve variables, incorporates not only the usual economic and educational variables seen in many other reports on US women but also variables related to violence and to legal discrimination. The Index is being updated on a regular basis, as well. 

The IWPR report also has a very impressive breadth compared to other efforts. It has seven clusters of variables: 1) Employment and Earnings, 2) Poverty and Opportunity, 3) Health and Well-being, 4) Reproductive Rights, 5) Violence and Safety, 6) Work and Family, and 7) Political Participation. Each cluster has 4-15 variables. A list of all the variables examined can be found on any given state page. We believe the total is 54 variables examined.  This is the largest single report coverage on women in the United States we have found anywhere, and the effort is highly commendable.  However, there are some issues.  First, the methodology page is not complete, and for at least one cluster there is very little information.  Second, subsets of the 54 variables surround only one given phenomenon; for example, there are six variables alone on abortion access, and there are five variables on the experience of violence in school by high school students. The figure of 54 variables, therefore, does not translate into 54 separate phenomena examined. Methodological issues aside, the last time there was full information for each state was in 2015, with the data in the 2015 state reports drawn primarily from 2013-2015. There have been very few updates, and then only of a single cluster; for example, there is a 2018 update for the economic variables. However, that means that most of the variables in the report are based on data that is approximately a decade old now.

The third US-based effort is that of WalletHub, which examines each of the 50 states and Washington, DC on two dimensions: women’s economic and social well-being, and women’s health care and safety.  Twenty-five indicators are examined, including those such as median earnings for women, women’s unemployment, women living in poverty, high school graduation rates for women, abortion access, depression, suicide, and homicide rates for women.  Though limited in scope, the effort is promising.  Again, though, the emphasis is on a final overall number, and not explanation and interpretation. There appears to have been only one iteration of the index—we could not find any indices for previous years on WalletHub’s website.

We applaud all of the efforts surveyed here. And yet, the need for a relatively comprehensive and updated look at the situation of women in the United States is clear. What is needed is a prose report—not simply a list of numbers–that goes beyond one or two areas of concern, that examines both what the law is and what the actual situation on the ground is for women, that traces the trajectory of what is being examined, and which goes beyond the display of a number to a real grappling with each dimension, interpreting the numbers in context, pointing out areas of missing data/information, and exploring what these things actually mean for the lives of U.S. women. Only in this way will policymakers be able to create the type of prioritized policy agenda necessary to improve the situation of women in the United States. 

By Dr. Valerie Hudson


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