On October 27, the World Economic Forum released its 2009 Global Gender Gap report, which ranks countries according to four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Who wins? Iceland, with the world’s smallest gender gap. Who loses? Yemen, coming in at 134th place. But lest we point fingers, the U.S. dropped four places, to 31st place, owing to minor drops in the participation of women in the economy and improvements in the scores of previously lower-ranking countries. (Though we’re top of the heap for educational attainment, we’re #61 for political empowerment. Ouch!)

The authors, Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University, Laura D. Tyson of the University of California at Berkeley, and Saadia Zahidi of the World Economic Forum, have put together an accessible and informative report. Among many other issues, their report suggests how motherhood can, in a word, kill. Consider a few of the statistics surrounding maternal health in many parts of the world:

Annually, more than half a million women and girls die in pregnancy and childbirth and 3.7 million newborns die within their first 28 days. (Appendix E, “Maternal Health and Mortality”)

Approximately 80% of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternity and basic healthcare services. (Appendix E, “Maternal Health and Mortality”)

The need for paying greater attention to maternal health has been underscored by Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times column and his recent book Half the Sky, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn. And while plenty of criticism has been levied against Kristof’s book, succinctly and fairly voiced by Katha Pollitt in her review in The Nation (thanks to my colleague Amy Kesselman for bringing her review to my attention!), Kristof deserves kudos for bringing media attention to the health issues that needlessly affect mothers in many developing countries, such as obstetric fistula.

The Global Gender Gap report provides other glimpses into how the experience of motherhood varies from country to country. Consider what Ricardo Hausmann, Ina Ganguli, and Martina Viarengo have to say about the relationship between marriage and motherhood, and their impact on the labor force participation gap between men and women:

…while the education gap has been reversed in quite a few countries, the employment gap has not. This gap is related to the compatibility of marriage and motherhood with a lifestyle where women can work.

(Here, the U.S. has a dubious distinction: of those countries where the employment gap has been rising, it has seen the biggest increase.)

Overall, however, there are some signs of positive change when examining the “motherhood gap” within labor force participation globally:

Motherhood has not been a universal obstacle for female labour force participation. In almost half the countries we studied, women with three children work at least as much as women with no children. However, in other countries, especially in Latin America, the motherhood gap is very large, with Chile exhibiting the largest gap. But there is good news: the motherhood gap has been falling in almost two-thirds of the countries, with the biggest reductions shown again by Brazil and Greece, accompanied by Austria and Bolivia.

There isn’t room in this report to explore all the complexities of paid work and mothering–such as who cares for children when mothers work in countries that don’t support working mothers, the working conditions mothers face, and so on–not to mention the wide spectrum of how women experience motherhood according to identity (class, ethnicity, religion), educational background, and geographical location (whether mothers live in a village or an urban environment). Even so, the report provides some broad brushstrokes that help situate the many different kids of gendered gaps in the world.