Tea Trumbic

Beyond empowering women, gender equality makes societies and economies more dynamic and more resilient, writes the World Bank’s Tea Trumbic.

In a world beset by multiple crises and weak economic growth, the failure of most countries to fully empower women is a costly mistake. Denying equal rights to women across much of the world is not just unfair to women; it is a barrier to countries’ ability to promote green, resilient and inclusive development.

Countries cannot move forward if half of their citizens are held back. The time is now to level the playing field for women, and the place to start is with the laws.

To that end, the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report examines laws affecting women’s prospects as entrepreneurs and employees across 190 economies. The data offers objective and measurable benchmarks for global progress towards gender equality. The project’s goal is to inform policy discussions on removing discriminatory laws and promoting women’s economic inclusion.

Can women get a job in the same way as men? Does the law mandate equal pay for work of equal value? Can an employer dismiss a worker for being pregnant? Does the law prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on gender? Are the retirement ages for men and women equal? When the answer is ‘no,’ it holds women back from fully participating in their economies and affects their ability to make economic decisions that are best for them, their families and their communities. Only 14 countries, all advanced economies, have legal gender equality in all the areas measured.

In many countries, women still have only a fraction of the legal rights of men, restricting their opportunities to work or own a business. In 2022, the global average score on the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law index rose just half a point to 77.1 — indicating women, on average, have barely 77% of the legal rights that men enjoy. At the current pace of reform, a woman entering the workforce today in many countries will retire before she gains the same rights as her male counterparts.

Progress towards equal treatment for women has fallen to its weakest pace in 20 years

Progress towards equal treatment for women has fallen to its weakest pace in 20 years. Last year, only 18 economies reformed their laws towards gender equality, the lowest number since 2001. While there has been progress, especially in recent years, it’s time to pick up the pace. 

Worldwide, 2.4 billion women of working age do not have equal economic opportunity and 176 economies maintain legal barriers that prevent their full economic participation. Closing the gender employment gap could raise long-term gross domestic product per capita by nearly 20% on average across countries. Studies estimate global economic gains of up to $6tn if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as men do.

As we’ve seen, gender equality is not only good for women. It is also good for society and the economy: it makes both more dynamic and more resilient. Equal treatment of women under the law is associated with larger numbers of women entering and remaining in the labour force, rising to managerial positions, and becoming intellectual and political leaders.

At the same time, gender equality is often boosted by economic development because there are more resources available to invest in programmes and policies that promote women’s participation, such as education, health and financial inclusion initiatives. Macroeconomic stability often leads to more opportunities for women to work and start businesses, allowing them to become more financially independent and empowered.

But strong economic conditions alone are not enough to ensure progress towards equality. Policy-makers should work to close gender gaps and ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared equally between women and men. One important step is to pass laws and policies that promote women entering and remaining in the workforce, such as equal pay for equal work, protection from discrimination, and sexual harassment and parental leave policies.

It is also important to create enabling conditions for women to start and grow businesses, and improve their access to productive assets and finance. Laws and policies that boost women’s agency at home and in society are essential components of empowerment. Finally, it is also important to consider social norms and attitudes that lead to culturally engrained gender biases and discrimination.

Although great achievements were made over the past five decades, more needs to be done worldwide to ensure that good intentions are accompanied by tangible results — that is, equal opportunity under the law for women. Women cannot afford to wait any longer to reach gender equality. Neither can the global economy.

Tea Trumbic is manager of the Women, Business and the Law programme at the World Bank.


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