The World Bank released a report on Wednesday that documents, point by point, exactly how economic inequality for women is a systemic problem — the result of laws that either prevent women’s economic freedom or the absence of laws meant to protect women from discrimination.
On a broad range of issues, the report finds, women in many countries have no autonomy in their professional lives. Rather, husbands or the government make their decisions about how to work, and whether to work at all, for them.
In 15 countries, a husband can prevent his wife from working. These countries are largely in Africa — Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan — or the Middle East — Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and the West Bank and Gaza. The outlier, Bolivia, is the only Latin American country with such a law.
Many of these countries also have rules requiring wives to get their husbands’ permission before traveling outside the home, holding a national identity card, applying for a passport, or traveling outside the country. These are things that women who want high-powered careers generally need. Without them, their careers can stall out.
In countries where the husband doesn’t have control over his wife, the state often steps in: “In 79 economies,” the report’s authors write, “laws restrict the types of jobs that women can do.” Banned jobs are often seen in these countries as “harmful to [women's] moral character.” And they aren’t just a few careers. In Russia, women are blocked from 456 different jobs.
While the last 50 years have seen huge progress for women’s economic freedom, certain areas of the world haven’t kept up with the global trend, the Middle East being the worst offender:
CREDIT: World Bank
In the countries the World Bank examined, gender inequality goes far beyond the workplace. Only 76 of the economies studied in the report have anti-domestic violence laws of any kind. A mere 32 have protections against sexual harassment in schools, and a pitiful eight give women any protection from harassment in public spaces.
What can be done? The report suggests that a quote system enshrining female positions in elected government might help. Quotas, both in government and on corporate boards, can promote policies that give women more parity.
They also can make government and companies run better better. Some evidence suggests that increasing women’s representation in government can reduce corruption. Corporate boards with more gender diversity actually outperform their more heavily male counterparts.
However, any benefit of having women in government depends crucially on real equality. Women won’t influence policies, studies show, if they hold a tiny minority of positions in government. But they will if they hold around half.