By Meredith Shea

While many of us may think we prefer living in New York City or Los Angeles to Isafjordur or Reykjavik, it is important to step back and realize what potential challenges, sacrifices, or injustices we face by doing so. While the United States continues to make strides in women’s rights and representation, there are still twenty-one countries that are actively empowering their women at a more impressive rate.

Three years running, Iceland has been labeled by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report as the best country in the world to be a woman. The evaluation of 135 countries across the globe is based on 14 variables in four categories of “women’s access to basic and higher education,” “women’s health and survival by measures of life expectancy and sex ratio,” “equality of economic opportunity and participation,” and “political empowerment.”[1] In 1915, Iceland preceded many countries by granting women the right to vote. It currently has a 43% female parliament, 81% of women in the workforce, and “one of the narrowest labor force participation gaps.”[2]

When I think about my life as a young woman in the United States, my first reaction is an overall sense of satisfaction. I do not think it could be “the 22nd best country to be a woman in 2012, declining from its 2011 rank at 17, labeled at number 68 for pay equality.[3]” Having been educated in an all-girls private school and now finishing my degree at the University of Pennsylvania, I can say I have opportunities and experiences that have empowered me as a woman. Sometimes, of course, they are paired with the occasional uncomfortable situation while working as a waitress or during a night out at a bar. However, mine is not representative of the average woman’s experience with education. I know that once I graduate, I will face different and more uncomfortable ranges of gender barriers.

The “real world,” as we college students call it, will present new kinds of problems, such as 74 cents/dollar wage differences for college-educated women compared to their college-educated male counterparts. To place this in perspective, a typical full-time working woman, loses about $443,360 in a 40-year period, meaning she must work twelve more years to make up for the gap.[4]  But these gender inequalities are not limited to the workforce. Within the government of the United States, women are incredibly absent. Holding only 17/100 seats in the Senate and 73/435 seats in the House of Representatives,[5] women, or slightly more than half of the population, are underrepresented.[6]  While the November 2012 presidential election hotly debated women’s rights issues, many complained that women should represent women on these issues.

So what other countries are better at empowering women than the United States? The top spots of the report are dominated by Nordic countries, with Norway (No. 2), Finland (No. 3), Sweden (No. 4), and Denmark (No. 7) consistently placing in the top ten. [7]  What is it regionally and culturally that these countries have figured out about the role of women? And even the role of families? Often times, these countries offer paid maternity and paternity leave. It is not surprising that the US outranks Yemen or Saudi Arabia, but perhaps it is startling that we have a lower ranking than the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Cuba.[8]

When I feel angry about gender inequalities in my life or my friends’ lives, I don’t often consider moving to Iceland. But perhaps I should rethink things.


Meredith Shea is a senior at Penn, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Creative Writing. She is currently writing her thesis on the relationship between human rights and democratization in Latin America. 

[1] Forbes. “The Best and Worst Countries for Women.” <>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid

[4] Pay Equity. <>

[5] Catalyst. “Women in Government.” <>

[6] US Census Bureau. <>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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