Gender and Inequality: How the U.S. Stacks Up Against Other OECD Countries

Posted on 24 May 2012


The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has just released the 2012 Better Life Index with two new and striking additions this year. For the first time, each of 11 categories that are used to measure well-being will be compared against gender and socioeconomic inequality, giving a fuller picture of the quality of life in each of the 34 member countries (plus Russia and Brazil).

While nation-wide averages are helpful with simple comparisons between one country’s performance and another, they fail to capture the nuances and finer details of the game of life. Averages gloss over the effects that gender and socioeconomic inequality have on access to education, political participation, healthcare, and more.

So how does the U.S. stack up against other OECD nations when these new measurements are taken into consideration? Here’s a snapshot of this year’s list through the lens of gender and inequality:

Household Income

“For all countries assessed, the average household income of the richest 20% is more than five times higher than for the poorest 20%. In the U.S. the household income of the richest 20% is almost eight times higher than for the poorest 20%. In Canada, the richest 20% earn 5.5 times more than the poorest 20%,” says Matthias Rumpf of the OECD.

These enormous disparities in household income place the U.S. near the bottom of the list in the company of some of the most unequal countries in the OECD – Turkey, Russia, Chile and Mexico respectively.

Political Participation

The U.S. is an interesting study as women are now outvoting men by 4% (candidates, take note). Socioeconomic status has huge impact on voting habits in the U.S. The gap between the voter turnout rates of the wealthiest and the poorest is three times larger than the OECD average, revealing the sad fact that our democracy is failing to involve and engage those at the bottom of the totem pole.


The gap between women and men’s employment and earnings is smaller than in most other OECD countries, which is good news. But the study finds that the U.S. job market is much more stratified than others, with larger than average disparities in employment and earnings between the rich and the poor.


More women than men are finishing their high school education, and the overall graduation rate for high schoolers in the U.S. is far above the average for OECD countries. However, the U.S. is much more inconsistent at delivering a quality education. There are fewer disparities in the quality of education that the rich and the poor receive in most OECD countries, but the in U.S., the report finds that privileged kids receive a better education than those born to the poorest families. (For more on this subject, see Daniel Fisher‘s post: Poor Students Are The Real Victims Of College Discrimination)


As in most of the world, American women live several years longer than men. However, overall life expectancy, which was once above the OECD average has now fallen behind, with great disparities between how the richest and the poorest rate their health. 96% of the wealthiest fifth rated their health as ‘very good’ compared to 76% of the bottom fifth of Americans.