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FEATURE STORY March 8, 2021

Removing Barriers and Creating Better Job Opportunities for Women in Azerbaijan

In 74 economies around the world, women are legally barred from working in certain industries. Azerbaijan is one of them, where 674 occupations are reserved for men only.

These restrictions are scattered across many parts of the economy, from transport to energy and agriculture. For example, women cannot lay asphalt, work as train engineers, or drive a city bus with more than 14 seats. Women are also legally prohibited from being hired into a wide array of jobs involving work that is located underground, or is deemed to be potentially hazardous or to involve hard physical labor.

These job restrictions are the remnants of a law inherited from the Soviet Union, and were likely introduced with the intention of protecting women’s health, although they were not necessarily based on an actual risk assessment of each job.

A recent World Bank study, produced at the behest of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population of the Republic of Azerbaijan, found that the vast majority of the 674 restrictions still in place lack any evidence-based justification. These job-by-job restrictions are unwieldy, hard to enforce, and have not kept pace with the changing world of work, in which, for many careers, advancements in technology have replaced the need for physical strength.

The country’s old labor laws mean that there is a stark divide between what men and women can do for work in Azerbaijan, although there are relatively small gender gaps in the country’s labor market when female and male employment rates are compared.

Women tend to work in lower-wage careers, such as in health and education, while men dominate the better remunerated fields. For example, in transport and storage, only 17.2% of the workforce is female; in electricity, gas, and steam production, the figure is 10.9%; and in construction it is as low as 7.1%. These are also some of the industries with the highest number of job restrictions.

It is not surprising that this workplace segregation contributes to a high gender pay gap in Azerbaijan: when median monthly earnings are compared, men earn 46% more than women, on average. This is the highest reported pay gap in the Europe and Central Asia region.  

It is not just women who suffer because of job restrictions. These constraints also hurt businesses, as gender-based barriers to entry shrink the national talent pool, thereby undermining economic development. Research shows that eliminating legal discrimination leads to higher levels of female participation in the labor force, which translates into significant macroeconomic gains.

Limitations on female employment also slow Azerbaijan’s efforts to improve the skills of its labor force and diversify its economy away from oil and gas. They could even impact Azerbaijan’s employment strategy for 2019–2030, which aims to improve the country’s human capital and employment potential.

But building a competitive economy and human capital will be difficult to achieve if half the population is legally prevented from taking on certain jobs.

"Based on good international practice, Azerbaijan intends to repeal the old list of occupations that women cannot work at, and to replace it with a much shorter list of occupations and work environments in which women will not work only during pregnancy and lactation due to possible health hazards. This will help the country to make a major breakthrough in equal treatment of women, and equal employment opportunities for women, and to ensure faster approximation of the median wage of women to that of men."
Abulfat Maharramov
Head of the Labor Policy Department, Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Azerbaijan

Lifting the legal obstacles to women’s employment must be a key first step, but working women in Azerbaijan will still face discrimination via “soft” barriers. Among other hurdles, persistent social norms and gender stereotypes still influence students’ choice of study and profession, and an enduring male-dominated work culture in many parts of the economy continues to slow women’s full integration into the labor force.

Modernizing the labor law needs to be accompanied, therefore, by a range of actions to change mindsets about which jobs are considered appropriate for women and to demystify the prospect of actually looking for work in currently male-dominated professions.

In addition to ensuring that all Azerbaijanis enjoy the labor rights to which they are entitled, promoting women and girls, opening career paths to them, and supporting their career choices is a way to contribute to Azerbaijan’s overall economic and social development.