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Speeches & Transcripts May 14, 2018

Remarks by Linda Van Gelder at the Western Balkans Meeting on Improving Gender Equality in Access to Economic Opportunities

Distinguished participants,

Welcome to Vienna. I’d like to thank you so much for joining us today in this workshop—focused on how to improve gender equality in the Western Balkans for higher economic growth.

This is an important topic—no country can reach its potential with a large share of its population excluded from actively and productively participating in the economy. Amartya Sen, the economist-philosopher and Nobel Prize Laureate, said that poverty leads to an intolerable waste of talent. The same can be said for gender inequality.

Let me share a story with you. Think of a young woman who graduated with a degree in business administration, is married and has one young child. She starts looking for a job, but she has no success. Employers think that she will have more children soon and go on a long maternity leave, or that she won’t be reliable because she will have competing family demands. She was advised to write in her CV that she is not planning to have any more children and that her son has someone to take care of him if he gets sick. Still no luck, even though she sees men with similar qualifications getting hired. She thinks about starting her own business, but she doesn’t have the capital nor the collateral for a loan to do so. Her inheritance went to her brothers, and the land she and her husband own is not under her name. Even if she got credit, she would have paid a higher interest rate and gotten a lower loan maturity than male entrepreneurs. She is now discouraged and is no longer looking for a job or using her talent through entrepreneurship.

Stories like these are common in the Western Balkans, and they show how interconnected the challenges are that hinder gender equality in access to economic opportunities.

Yet we start with the advantage that gender gaps in education are small—in fact, in many countries in the region women attain higher levels of education than men. But the benefits of that investment do not translate into women’s full participation in labor markets and entrepreneurship. Women, their families, and society at large loses out.

Women face barriers and disincentives to work, which often reinforce each other. In the story I told you, there are barriers to access to land, labor market access, and social norms. These barriers won’t disappear through economic growth alone. They require corrective policy actions and multi-sectorial interventions so that women can fully contribute.

Let me touch on three areas in which policies can help close gender gaps in access to economic opportunities and, by doing so, promote growth and social inclusion: (i) access to property and finance, (ii) access to labor markets, and (iii) improved monitoring and coordination of gender equality goals. As you can see from the agenda, today’s workshop is organized around these areas. Let me say a few words of context about each.  

First, women are underrepresented as property owners across the region. In FYR Macedonia, for example, only 17 percent of properties have women registered as owners or co-owners. The situation is similar in other countries in the Western Balkans. Importantly, this is not driven by a discriminatory legal framework on ownership of property, but by how the law is being implemented, often underpinned by social norms. Regulations and procedures can be improved so that ownership rights are reflected in property registration. This can have an impact on balancing women’s voice and bargaining power in the household, and on allowing women to access credit and use the land for productive purposes.

Access to finance is also a constraint. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, 57 percent of firms owned and managed by women face a financing gap (meaning that they don’t have a loan and need one). This compares to 34 percent for firms managed and owned by men. The lack of collateral, linked to my previous point on access to land, is a constraint for these female-led firms. But, even when they do get credit, they face less favorable terms than those offered to men.

Second, even when women have assets—education, finance, land—they face obstacles to finding and keeping jobs. Labor regulations create constraints.  About 40 percent of employers interviewed in a recent study in Albania (and 45 percent in Kosovo), said they had issues when hiring women because it costlier due to labor regulations. The design of maternity leave can also create disincentives for employers to hire women. 

Lack of quality and affordable child care also constrains women’s ability to look for a job. But even when women do have childcare, they still face discrimination in hiring decisions. A substantial share of employers—one-quarter in Serbia, and almost half in Albania—view competing family obligations as an issue when hiring women. Enhancing access to child care and elder care is a priority for the Western Balkans. One that can have important impacts for the topic of this workshop, but also, through the provision of preschool to the most disadvantaged, in helping build the skills that the future generations of men and women need and that are developed more effectively early in life.

Other obstacles keep women out of the labor market or from good jobs. A hard one to tackle is attitudes and social norms. It is indeed hard, and often remains a blind spot in our policy agenda. But legal and institutional changes can move us in the right direction, and can start moving the needle in changing attitudes and perceptions about the role of women.

Third, the more we know, the more effective policies can be. Building a strong evidence base, and developing solid monitoring and evaluation systems is critical. This requires strengthening the institutional framework on gender equality so that efforts of the gender champions in each Government permeate to other Ministries and to the subnational level. There is also much to be gained from regional coordination: to share experiences, to monitor indicators, to support implementation. A regional agenda on gender equality complements well efforts on regional economic integration and aspirations for EU accession.

Allow me to share another story. Think of a young woman who recently finished her studies. She has a family and is looking for a job. Her qualifications are similar to those of male candidates applying for the same position, and she is given a fair chance to interview. She is not asked about her family status. She does well and gets the job. Her children go to a high-quality child care center, one that remains open even in summer months, and allows her to keep this steady employment. She gets pregnant and goes on maternity leave. She can share the family leave with her husband, who takes time off work to care for the baby, given the option to do so by family leave provisions. Her father passes away, and she inherits land in equal shares as her siblings. She uses that inheritance to start a business. She is doing well and recently hired two people to help her with it.

This is positive story of gender equality—the kind we all want to hear more of. One in which women’s role in the family is not incompatible with women’s role in the labor market.

In fact, tomorrow we celebrate the International Day of Families.  This year’s theme is families for inclusive societies. This is at the heart of the gender equality agenda. Families have been transforming, with men taking a more active role in child care, and women increasingly able to work and have a voice in household decisions. The benefits of that for men, women and their families are widely documented. But more needs to be done to ensure that men and women have (once more borrowing from the words of Amartya Sen) the “capability to realize one's full potential”.

In the Western Balkans, you have shown strong commitment to the gender equality agenda. With additional policy measures, Governments can make a difference now. They can promote gender equality as a development objective in its own right, and to contribute to robust, more inclusive, and sustainable growth and job creation. This is a win-win situation. Some of the bottlenecks are already identified, and we can use today as an opportunity to move this agenda forward.

The World Bank will continue working with each of you on these issues, and much has been and continue to be accomplished at the country level. But progress can be faster and the impact higher by tackling these issues collectively at the regional level.

Thank you, and I look forward to today’s discussions!