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OPINION March 29, 2018

Changing the laws that keep women out of work

We all celebrate the progress that women are making in the world and the workplace, but would it not be even better if these strides towards equality were not always propelled by dramatic moments that force changes to happen?

From Hollywood to London W1A, this year’s revelations about sexual harassment and unequal pay have brought banner headlines, moral outrage and swift action to rectify unjust practices and behaviour.

There can be no disputing the fact that, as we make up half of the world’s population, women share an equal role with men in driving economic growth. In fact, some argue that women control the greater part of global consumer spending. Eliminating barriers discriminating against women could raise labour productivity by as much as 25 per cent in some economies, simply by increasing women’s labour force participation.

Yet in more than half the world’s women are still prevented from working in certain jobs simply because of their gender. That is not all. In 123 countries, there are no laws on sexual harassment in education. In 59 countries, there are no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace. And in 18 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

These depressing statistics are to be found in Women, Business and the Law 2018, a World Bank report that for the past decade has measured the legal obstacles to women’s economic activity. Thanks to it, our understanding has greatly increased about how laws influence women’s decisions to start and run businesses or to get jobs.

The report examines seven areas: accessing institutions, using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, going to court, building credit and protecting women from violence. It scores countries across all seven indicators and, while the UK scores highly, the data reveal the full scale of the continuing challenge many women face in our quest for economic opportunity.

It documents the countries where women do not have the same property rights as men, making it more difficult for women to have property as collateral to access finance.

The report gives a clear picture of how laws can make it harder for women than for men to get jobs and to become entrepreneurs.

First, job restrictions make it harder for women to gain employment. One hundred and four economies around the world have some form of job restrictions on women’s work, for instance in industries such as mining, manufacturing, construction, energy, agriculture, water and transportation. As a result of such restrictions, about 2.75bn women do not have the same opportunities because they are women.

Second, women are more likely to own businesses in countries where there is protection against sexual harassment. We calculated that more than half a billion women around the world have no legal protection from sexual harassment at work. Laws may not solve the problem but they are an important first step and the evidence shows that where they exist, women are more likely to own businesses.

Third, women are less likely to hold leadership positions in public life where the law restricts their capacity to act independently and their freedom of movement. Nearly 850m live in countries with such restrictions. In 31 countries, for instance, women cannot choose where they live in the same way as men can.

But change is happening and the evidence is available to demonstrate that, where there is gender equality in labour laws, more women work and earn more relative to men. Colombia’s constitutional court ruled that prohibitions on women’s work in mining is discriminatory. Bulgaria, Kiribati and Poland also recently eliminated all restrictions on women’s employment.

Social media phenomena such as the #MeToo movement that highlight the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace are making a valuable contribution.

When one of the UK’s best loved institutions was revealed to be paying women less money than men for doing the same work, there was real moral force backing the public response and the momentum to put it right became unstoppable.

But the returns on achieving gender equality are also economic: we all stand to gain through greater prosperity and stability.

Would it not be great if the inequalities that women suffer around the world were also resolved because the governments upholding bad laws were held to account on their records? Women, Business and the Law 2018 can help drive reforms forward faster.

Kristalina Georgieva is chief executive officer of the World Bank

This piece first appeared in the Financial Times on Thursday, March 29, 2018 here