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SPI Journal, Spring 2023
Connecting the dots

Global economy can’t afford to wait for gender equality

What needs to change to level the playing field for women? Start with the laws, writes Tea Trumbic, manager, Women, Business and the Law, World Bank.

SPI23journalspring_World Bank

Gender equality can strengthen and grow economies. Research has shown that it leads to a more efficient allocation of resources and can increase labour force participation. When women have equal access to economic opportunities, they can participate more actively in the economy and reach their full potential, contributing to increased productivity and growth.

At the same time, economic development can be beneficial to gender equality because there are additional 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 simply having strong economic conditions is 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.

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 offer 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.

The latest ‘Women, Business and the Law 2023’ report provides a comprehensive assessment of global progress towards gender equality in the law over the past 50 years. Since 1970, the global average ‘Women, Business and the Law’ index score has improved by about two-thirds, rising from 45.8 points to 77.1. The report also updates the data to show the state of women’s rights as of October 2022 and presents the critical relationship between legal gender equality and women’s employment and entrepreneurship.

Can women get a job in the same way as men? Does the law mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value? Is dismissal of pregnant workers prohibited? 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. According to the latest report, only 14 countries, all advanced economies, have legal gender equality on the areas measured.

However, in many countries, women still have only a fraction of the legal rights of men, facing legal restrictions that limit their opportunities to work or own a business throughout their lives. In fact, progress towards equal treatment for women has fallen to its weakest pace in 20 years. Since 2021, only 18 economies reformed their laws towards gender equality across all areas measured by Women, Business and the Law, the lowest number since 2001.

Progress has been made, especially in recent years. But it needs to be accelerated. The Women, Business and the Law team has started looking into the process of reforming laws through case studies in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, São Tomé and Príncipe, South Africa and Togo. More analysis is needed to understand what conditions influence reforms to guide future policy and expedite movement towards gender equality.

Equality of opportunity in the law is a critical first step towards accelerating women’s economic empowerment around the world. Women cannot afford to wait any longer to reach gender equality. Neither can the global economy.

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