By Claire West

An innovative new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit opens a window on to the economic landscape that women face globally and highlights which countries offer the most and the fewest opportunities.

The Women’s Economic Opportunity Index is a pilot effort to assess the laws, regulations, practices, and attitudes that affect women workers and entrepreneurs. It uses 26 indicators, selected and validated by a panel of gender experts, to evaluate every aspect of the economic and social value chain for women, from fertility to retirement. By exploring the binding constraints that women face, it points to steps governments can take to improve opportunities for women and boost overall economic performance.

“Countries have made good progress in levelling the playing field for women over the last few decades, but too many women still cannot exercise their full economic rights,” said Leila Butt, a senior economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit and research manager for the project.

Women’s economic opportunities are influenced not just by a country’s regulatory environment but also by social attitudes and customs. As a result, women’s participation in the formal labour force remains well below that of men. Women are also paid less than their male counterparts, and men continue to dominate in sectors with higher wage-earning potential, such as technology and finance. The study finds that even where legislation is intended to help women, implementation is often weak and opportunities remain limited.

Nevertheless, attitudes are changing as economies develop and opportunities for women expand. Countries with stagnant or slow-growing populations increasingly realise that women are essential to an expanding labour force.

Other key findings of the study include:

•Sweden, Belgium and Norway occupy the top spots in the Index. These countries have particularly open labour markets for women, high levels of educational achievement, and liberal legal and social regimes.

•Hong Kong (China) performs best in the Asia region, ranking in the top 25% in most categories. Mauritius is Africa’s best finisher; its labour policies are among the most favourable to women in the region.

•Excluding Canada and the US, Brazil edges Chile and Mexico for the best score in the Americas. Eastern European countries, especially Bulgaria, have particularly balanced labour-law protections.

•Inequality in labour opportunities and outcomes can occur because a disproportionate share of unpaid work falls on women. Social protection schemes, such as the provision of maternity leave and benefits, help to mitigate this.

•Women often face greater difficulties than men in securing credit due to a lack of collateral. Women’s access to property is restricted either by law or custom in many countries, leaving them with few assets.

•Many women face greater barriers than men in setting up businesses. Women’s enterprises are often particularly small and concentrated in the retail or services sectors. This calls for training programmes in management to provide the skills needed to run a successful business.


The Women’s Economic Opportunity Index is a dynamic quantitative and qualitative scoring model constructed from 26 indicators that measure specific attributes of the environment for women employees and entrepreneurs in 113 economies.

Five category scores are calculated from the unweighted mean of underlying indicators and scaled from 0-100, where 100=most favourable. These categories are: Labour policy and practice (which comprises two sub-categories: Labour policy and Labour practice); Access to finance; Education and training; Women’s legal and social status; and the General business environment. Each category or sub-category features either four or five underlying indicators.

The overall score is calculated from a simple average of the unweighted category and indicator scores. That is, every indicator contributes equally to its parent category and every category contributes equally to the overall score. This is the baseline score for the Women’s Economic Opportunity Index.