When I was in Ethiopia, my friend Alem worked for a paper products factory in Addis Ababa. From time to time, she would share workplace stories and ask me for legal advice. One of her most memorable stories occurred four years ago when Alem’s company asked her to fill in for the supervisor who had just resigned. Though she was not adequately paid for the increased workload, Alem happily performed the job hoping to get promoted. But after working as an interim supervisor for almost two years, the company promoted a less qualified man and requested she continue working as an assistant. Puzzled, I asked her why, and she replied “It is because I am a woman.”
Like Alem, women across the world still struggle to perform jobs of their choice and to obtain just compensation for them. Yet, achieving gender equality has become a priority for economies worldwide. According to the Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform, 131 economies around the world collectively made 274 reforms to afford women the same opportunities men have.
Ethiopia has also made progress. In 2018, Ethiopia made headlines when it appointed its first woman President, established a 50% female cabinet that includes a female Minister of Defense, and appointed the first female Chief Justice. These efforts are commendable but there are still legal barriers that constrain women’s economic empowerment.
Women, Business and the Law data show that of the eight indicators measured, Ethiopia performs well on Going Places, Starting a Job and Managing Assets. However, there is some room for improvement on the Getting Paid indicator, which measures laws affecting women’s choice of jobs. Here, Ethiopia lost points because it restricts women from working in certain jobs that men are allowed to work in. For instance, women are specifically prohibited from working in jobs that require mixing, filling, packaging and spraying of pesticides and anti-weeds. Women are also prohibited from working in mining, underground drilling operations, and in industries requiring continuous carrying, moving and lifting of weights over 15 kg. Such measures may be designed to protect women workers, but they also prohibit them from getting the jobs of their choice. Protections should apply to all workers, regardless of their gender.
Many economies have reformed their laws to allow men and women to perform the same jobs. Zambia is one such reformer. In 2015, it removed restrictions that prohibited women from working in jobs deemed arduous or harmful. This reform expanded women’s job opportunities and made it possible for them to potentially get higher paying employment. A similar reform to Ethiopia’s labor law would not only benefit women, but also firms and the economy’s overall competitiveness, by providing a bigger pool of qualified candidates.
Additionally, Ethiopian law does not mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees equal pay for men and women. But under the International Labour Organization’s Equal Remuneration Convention, equal remuneration means more than just equal pay. It also includes benefits provided as part of an employee’s total compensation package. Further, work of equal value not only refers to the same or similar jobs, but also to different jobs of the same value. When Ethiopian men and women perform work that is different in content but is of overall equal value, they should receive equal remuneration.
Discriminatory laws keep women out of the labor force by limiting their career opportunities and earning potential. The appointment of Ethiopian women to high level political positions is important. Reforming the law to allow women to take up the jobs of their choice is one way to solidify the considerable progress made towards greater gender equality in Ethiopia.