Removing discriminatory laws is linked to greater participation of women in schools and the labor force, higher rates of wage employment for women, and lower adolescent pregnancy. It also cuts down on maternal and infant mortality.
Those findings were discussed by Mary Hallward-Driemeier, lead economist in the World Bank’s research department, at February’s Policy Research Talk, a monthly event held by the department to foster a dialogue between researchers and operational colleagues.
“Expanding opportunity for half of the world’s population is a no brainer,” said World Bank Research Director Asli Demirguc-Kunt, who hosted the event. “It also makes economic sense. Gender economics is smart economics.”
Hallward-Driemeier’s research (here and here) draws on a database that tracks the global progress from 1960 to 2010 in removing discriminatory laws on women’s property rights, as well as women’s ability to make legal decisions. It shows that the number of legal barriers to women’s economic participation dropped by half around the globe, but progress is uneven.
The good news is that overall, the world made huge progress in reducing legal constraints on women: half of the discriminatory laws on the books in the 1960s had been removed by 2010, the study finds. The rich countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development removed all gender gaps on the books from the 1960s and 1970s. So did countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Latin America, East Asia and even Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest rates of gender gaps in 1960, cut the number of discriminatory laws by half.
Of the 100 countries covered in the study, 25 countries in the 1960s did not have any gender inequality based on the legal measures tracked by the authors. By 2010, the number rose to 53 countries. During the same period, only 18 countries did not close at least one gender gap in economic and legal rights. Progress was striking in many of the countries that began with the most number of gender-inequality constraints. South Africa and Benin, for example, closed all nine gender gaps tracked in the study. Spain removed the seven constraints it had.
As a result, women enjoy more equal economic rights. For example, more countries have dropped the requirement that wives obtain their husbands’ permission before signing legal contracts, and more countries support the joint titling of properties owned by both spouses.