Until recently, women in Azerbaijan were not permitted to work in as many as 674 jobs, across many sectors of the economy – from transport to energy to agriculture. For example, women could not lay asphalt, work as train engineers, or drive a city bus with more than 14 seats. Women were legally prohibited from being hired into a wide array of jobs that involved working underground, potentially hazardous work, and hard physical labor. These restrictions, inherited from the laws of the former Soviet Union, were likely intended to protect women’s health, but were not necessarily based on a risk assessment for each job. Moreover, they did not consider advancements in technology, and changes in the nature of work and occupational health conditions over the past decades.
In November 2022, Azerbaijan repealed these job restrictions on women’s employment, working with the World Bank to show that these roles posed no specific threat to women’s health. Instead of across-the-board restrictions, the new rules adopt a health risk-based approach to certain jobs.
This welcome development will benefit the economy and society at large and can yield gains for everyone, not just women.
· Benefits for women: Although there are relatively small gender gaps in the labor market in Azerbaijan when female and male employment rates are compared in absolute terms, there is a stark divide between where and what men and women do for work in Azerbaijan. Women tend to work lower-wage careers, e.g., in health and education, while men dominate better-remunerated fields, such as transport and storage, energy, or construction. This workplace segregation, which was exacerbated by legal restrictions, contributes to a high gender pay gap in Azerbaijan: when median monthly earnings are compared, men earn 35.2% more than women on average. This is one of Europe and Central Asia's highest reported pay gaps.
· Benefits for the economy: Global research shows that eliminating legal discrimination leads to higher female participation in the labor force, which translates into significant macroeconomic gains. This reform is expected to improve women’s access to jobs and positively impact the implementation of Azerbaijan's Strategy for Socio-Economic Development 2022-26, which aims to support a sustainable economy and competitive human capital – priorities that cannot be achieved when half the population is legally prevented from taking on certain jobs.
· Benefits for businesses: It is not just women who suffer from job restrictions. These restrictions also hurt businesses, because gender-based barriers to entry shrink the national talent pool into which businesses can tap. Removing restrictions on women’s employment can help industries in several ways. Greater women’s participation in the labor market increases employers’ hiring choices. A more equal balance of women and men in the workforce creates a more progressive image among the firm’s customer base. And most importantly, more diverse teams ensure better approaches to problem-solving, innovation and understanding customers’ needs and preferences, thus improving dynamics, productivity and market relevance.
· Compliance with international conventions: Compliance with international conventions, which call for occupational health measures for all workers regardless of gender, argued for lifting the restrictive law. The restrictions were causing contradictions between Azerbaijan’s labor regulations and several international conventions that Azerbaijan is party to, such as the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women, and the European Social Charter of the Council of Europe.
Beyond the legal reform
Removing legal restrictions is an important first step towards better supporting women in the labor force, but needs to be followed by tackling other deeply embedded “soft” barriers that impede women’s access to employment in traditionally male-dominated sectors of the economy. This includes addressing gender stereotypes, which strongly influence the education choices that women and men make, and which see many positions and fields of educational study as ‘male’, encouraging girls and young women to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at school and university, and redressing workplace health, safety, and inclusion issues ranging from human resources policies to lack of appropriate facilities to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Funded by the European Union (EU) through the Azerbaijan Rapid Technical Assistance Facility (AZTAF), the World Bank has recently launched a new technical assistance and capacity building program “Strengthening women's human capital for their better labor market outcomes: 2023-2024”. This initiative will be implemented in close coordination with the Government of Azerbaijan and aims to tackle soft barriers to women’s employment through a range of activities, such as public awareness raising to demystify the prospect of looking for work in currently male-dominated professions, supporting pilot state-owned enterprises to identify and address gender gaps in their human resources policies and practices covering recruitment, retention and career progression, and nurturing the female talent pool by strengthening pathways between employers and education institutions that prepare graduates for the ‘male-dominated’ sectors of the economy.
With Azerbaijan’s readiness to challenge gender-based occupational segregation and support women to pursue new economic and life opportunities, we are sure that Azerbaijan will be effective in achieving a more gender-equal labor market structure and more successfully harnessing the potential economic contributions of all of its citizens – women and men. We at the World Bank and the European Union look forward to supporting the Government in this important initiative!
Sarah Michael is the World Bank's Country Manager for Azerbaijan
Peter Michalko is the EU Ambassador to Azerbaijan