Laws continue to limit women’s economic opportunities, World Bank says

Washington-based lender says Covid-19 has exacerbated gender inequalities and government initiatives have had a limited impact

With regard to remuneration for female employees in the labour force, fewer than half of economies worldwide have mandated equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value, according to a report from the World Bank. Photo: Getty Images
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Women around the world continue to face laws that restrict their economic opportunity even as they struggle with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has set back their economic empowerment, according to a new World Bank report.

On average, women have just three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men, according to the report titled Women, Business and the Law 2021, which surveyed more than 2,300 lawyers, judges, academics, civil society representatives and public officials from 190 countries.

Reforms to remove obstacles to women’s economic inclusion have been slow and uneven in many regions, the Washington-based lender said. The group was already at a disadvantage before the pandemic and government initiatives to buffer some of its effects have been limited in many countries.

“Women need to be fully included in economies in order to achieve better development outcomes,” David Malpass, president of the World Bank, said. “Despite progress in many countries, there have been troubling reversals in a few.”

Women should have the same access to finance and the same rights to inheritance as men and must be at the centre of policymakers' efforts for an inclusive recovery from the pandemic, Mr Malpass added.

Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable amid the coronavirus crisis than men’s jobs globally, at 5.7 per cent versus 3.1 per cent, respectively, according to a McKinsey survey. While women represent 39 per cent of global employment, they account for 54 per cent of overall job losses during the pandemic.

In its report, the World Bank measured laws and regulations across eight areas that continue to affect women’s economic opportunities in 190 countries from September 2019 to October 2020. These include mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets and pension.


The report found that many governments have put in place some measures to address the impact of the pandemic on working women.

For example, less than a quarter of all economies surveyed legally guaranteed employed parents any time off for childcare before the pandemic. Since then, in light of school closures, an additional 40 economies have introduced leave or benefit policies to help parents with childcare.

“While it is encouraging that many countries have proactively taken steps to help women navigate the pandemic, it’s clear that more work is needed, especially in improving parental leave and equalising pay,” Mari Pangestu, managing director of development policy and partnerships, World Bank, said. “Countries need to create a legal environment that enhances women’s economic inclusion.”

Women need to be fully included in economies in order to achieve better development outcomes

The report found that women are on an equal legal standing with men across all areas measured in 10 economies: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Sweden.

Despite the pandemic, 27 economies in all regions and income groups enacted reforms across all areas, the report found. The majority introduced reforms or amended laws affecting pay and parenthood.

Covid-19 has also widened existing gender pay gaps, the Washington-based lender said. Women are more likely than men to take leave from work or resign their positions to care for children in the event of illness or the closure of schools or daycare centres.

Even if they manage to hold on to their positions, women are still at higher risk of having to submit to greater earnings penalties as a result of the pandemic, the report said.

Measures to help working parents still require improvement globally. Some of the areas that were examined by the World Bank to determine support for parents include whether paid maternity leave of at least 14 weeks is available to mothers, if maternity benefits that are administered by the government are made available, paid leave for fathers and if the dismissal of pregnant women is prohibited, the report added.

With regard to remuneration for female employees in the labour force, fewer than half of economies worldwide have mandated equal pay for men and women for work of equal value, the report found.

There is also progress to be made with regard to pension for women employees. Retirement ages remain unequal in close to one-third of the economies covered, with a difference of five or more years between women and men in more than half of the economies in the Mena, according to the World Bank report.

Over the last 10 years, the pace of reform has picked up in the Mena and South Asia, it said.

“Achieving legal gender equality requires a concerted effort by governments, civil society and international organisations, among others,” the lender said.

“But legal and regulatory reforms can serve as an important catalyst to improve the lives of women as well as their families and communities.”