The ultramarathon for gender equality

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The year 2019 was filled with headlines showing women’s ability to compete with, or even outperform, men. The US women’s soccer team won the FIFA World Cup for the fourth time (exactly four more titles than the men’s team has ever won). German cyclist Fiona Colbinger became the first woman to win the Transcontinental Race. Pumping breast milk for her baby at checkpoints along the way, British runner Jasmin Paris became the first woman to win the 268-mile Montane Spine Race. When given the opportunity to move freely, women can achieve incredible things. But when it comes to gender equality, the race isn’t a sprint – it’s an ultramarathon.

While some women are outrunning men, others face legal restrictions on their basic freedom of movement. According to the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law 2020, almost one third of the 190 economies measured legally restrict women’s mobility. This includes nine countries where women cannot travel outside the country in the same way as men, and 36 where women face additional procedures when applying for a passport. This means that women can be prevented from competing in international sports events, pursuing studies abroad, or accepting a job that requires foreign travel in an increasingly interconnected business environment.

Though women’s ability to travel as freely as men is intuitive from a human rights perspective, research also shows that freedom of movement is a strong predictor of female labor force participation, female entrepreneurship, and women’s financial inclusion. In fact, gender gaps in account ownership and capacity to borrow from a financial institution are wider where women’s mobility is constrained.  

Countries are moving towards reform. Women, Business and the Law 2020 highlights that Saudi Arabia now allows women to obtain passports and travel abroad without male permission. In addition, women can choose where to live freely, and husbands can no longer sue their wives for leaving the marital home. In Grenada and Uganda, women can now apply for passports without bringing additional documentation that men did not have to show. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates no longer requires the consent of her husband when a married woman applies for a passport.

We’re fortunate that women are great endurance athletes, because the road to legal gender equality is long. Hopefully, more countries will follow these great examples and remove legal barriers to women’s freedom of movement. With any luck, the International Olympic Committee will also keep its promise to make the 2020 Tokyo games the most equal ones yet. Such changes will surely help us win this ultramarathon.  

So tell us: can women in your country work in the same way as men? What opportunities and challenges do you face as you move through your career? Do you have more economic opportunities than your mother or grandmother? What else needs to change to level the playing field for our daughters? 

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