Best Countries For Women Have One Strange Thing In Common

ex-communist womenWomen's standing in the upper reaches of business has stolen hundreds of headlines in the last few weeks, thanks to Sheryl Sandberg's new manifesto on the subject, Lean In. But the book by Facebook's chief operating officer is missing one key fact: A woman is more likely to enter senior management in almost any other country than the U.S.

According to a survey of 45 countries across North America, Europe, Asia, and South America by the international consultancy Grant Thornton, women occupied just under a quarter of senior management roles in 2012, after dipping for a few years during the recession. But this number varies vastly by nation. And the countries that score the highest have a strange thing in common: They once were, or still are, communist.

Developed countries: The worst for working women? In the U.S., just 1 in 5 senior managers are female. Japan, which has the third largest economy in the world, ranks dead last on the list, with a female representation of just 7 percent. On the other hand, China leads the pack, with women making up over half of its senior management.

This result may be slightly inflated, however, according to Dominic King, Grant Thornton's global research manager, because the results are self-reported, and there's no set definition of "senior manager."

But in many developing countries, he explains, "women are much more driven and much more ambitious at the moment."

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'Whatever male comrades can do, female comrades can do, too.' The only other countries where women make up at least a third of senior managers are Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Philippines and Georgia -- countries significantly below the U.S. on the development index. And 5 of those 6 once had socialist governments.

It's true that socialist governments generally advanced women's rights, by expanding public services like child care and kindergartens, and encouraging women to enter the workforce. After the Soviet Union crumbled, academics noted a curious rise in "communist nostalgia" -- a phenomenon more pronounced in women than men.

"There was a big push under the U.S.S.R. to give women equal employment rights to men," says King. "Those ex-Soviet countries, it's a hangover from that time."

Few truly wish for the return of the brutal dictatorships that marked this era. But evidently, economic growth brings more gains to men than women. Chinese women, for example, made great strides in the 1950s, reports The New York Times, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and his maxim "whatever male comrades can do, female comrades can do, too."

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But in terms of overall gender equality, the Nordic countries are best. The mass privatization of Chinese industry over the past few decades has brought enormous economic growth, but women's incomes have been falling relative to men's, the Times reports, and increasing numbers of people believe women's place is in the home.

Nordic countries such as Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden generally rank best for gender equality, overall. They top the charts on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Index, for example, which analyzes political, economic, educational and health equality in 135 countries.

But as the Grant Thornton report shows, that doesn't necessarily translate to more women at the top of business. "There's not a great cultural drive for women to necessarily take senior management roles" in Western countries, says King.

And a taste of communism may make the difference too. Even on the Global Gender Index, Cuba, despite a GDP per capita a fifth the size, ranks three spots above the United States.

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