Little attention has been given to the economic success and overall happiness of the nations with the lowest gender gaps.
Happiness is often perceived as an elusive feeling, a fleeting moment in a person’s life. National happiness might sound absurd, but a recent report by the United Nations reveals that happiness can actually be a public policy with highly successful results. The 2021 World Happiness Report shows that high levels of government spending on human infrastructure—the services and systems that improve people’s quality of life—are the key to happiness.
The top-ranked countries of the World Happiness Report share this high level of public investment in human infrastructure. Finland came in first for the fourth year in a row, followed by Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. They have very healthy market economies precisely because they invest heavily in caring for people, starting at birth.
These countries are not socialist—they simply have more women in leadership positions.
Finland, for example, passed the Parliament Act to give women the right to vote and run for parliamentary elections in 1906, much earlier than the U.S, and today women are about half of Finland’s national legislature.
However, neither the World Happiness Report nor policymakers acknowledge the connection between the two: Human infrastructure is supported by women in leading government positions. This correlation can be explained by another still generally ignored fact: that care work, such as caring for children and the elderly, has been devalued under a hidden gendered system of values that has gone along with the ranking of men/”masculinity” over women/”femininity.”
Women in leadership positions understand this historic pattern and that its solution lies in providing more choices to families for access to public services that help nurture human development and balance the gendered division of labor. Therefore, the presence of women in government leads to more caring policies that support human infrastructure for all, from high quality early education to universal health care.
However, the participation of women in a government’s policy making requires a pre-existing high status of women in general. International studies show that the status of women is a powerful predictor of a nation’s general quality of life and economic success.
Already in 1995, based on statistical data from 89 nations, the Center for Partnership Studies published a report titled Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life demonstrating this exact correlation. Since then, other studies such as the World Values Survey and the World Economic Forums’ Gender Gap Reports have also confirmed the correlation between a country’s standards of living and economy and the status of women.
The rise of women’s status empowers women to run for government. Nonetheless, little attention has been given to the economic success of the nations with the lowest gender gaps such as Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
In reality, a higher valuing of the stereotypically feminine—caring, caregiving and nonviolence—is not only good for women. It is also good for men and children of both genders, as well as for business.
President Biden has begun to promote more caring public policies, such as the American Families Plan, to improve public services and address the economic and gendered inequity that proved so detrimental during the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of this approach, the success stories of the 2021 World Happiness Report assure us that a shift towards caring policies and public welfare is not draining on the economy—but rather, the opposite.
President Biden’s investment in human infrastructure is particularly essential at a time when economists tell us that the most important capital in our post-industrial age is what they call “high quality human capital”—flexible, creative and resilient people. Neuroscience studies show that developing such human capital largely hinges on the quality of care and education children receive early on.
In other words, investing in what was once seen as “women’s work” is key to success in our new technological era.