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Progress towards gender equality under the law is being made, but legal barriers to women’s full economic participation remain

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Women, Business and the Law 2021 shows that when it comes to laws affecting economic participation, on average, women have just three-quarters of men's rights. While the gap to be bridged is sizeable, progress is being made.  In the last year alone, 27 economies implemented reforms that advance gender equality under the law.

We use the World Bank Gender Data Portal updated with the most recent Women, Business and the Law (WBL) data to explore the correlation between labor force statistics and the legal inequalities that a woman faces as she navigates her working life.

The data show that in places where women face fewer legal barriers to their participation in the economy, women’s participation in the labor force is higher. According to Women, Business and the Law 2021, ten economies receive a perfect score of 100, implying there are no longer any remaining legal inequalities in the areas covered. In these ten economies, the average labor force participation rate amongst women aged 15-64 is 73.5%; this compares to a global average of 52.3%.

Removing legal barriers to women’s work may also impact women’s positions within the labor force. One important metric of women’s status within the labor market is the proportion of female workers in vulnerable employment. Vulnerable employment refers to self-employment, including working in a household enterprise on or off the farm. Vulnerable workers are most likely to fall into poverty and are often not covered by social protection or in a position to save. According to data for 2020, women are slightly more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment: the global average is 45.4% for women, compared to 44% for men, but the gender gap is large in low and middle-income economies.  Correlating the Women, Business and the Law data with the proportion of female workers in vulnerable employment reveals that where legal equality is higher, there are fewer female employees in positions of vulnerable employment. Notable outliers include certain economies in the Middle East and North Africa region where women’s legal equality is below the global average, but where the proportion of workers in vulnerable employment (both male and female) is low. And recall that these are also economies with among the lowest labor force participation rates for women.

As this paper discusses, the pace of reform across the areas of the law captured by the Women, Business and the Law data has been uneven. In general, countries have made significant progress in reforming laws that restrict a woman’s ability to enter the workforce—captured under the Workplace indicator—suggesting that economic growth and an associated rising demand for labor may have motivated the desire to integrate women into the workforce. The Workplace indicator has increased from a global average of 17.8 points in 1970 to an average of 79.6 today. In contrast, progress in the Pay indicator, which measures laws and regulations affecting a woman’s pay, has been slower. In 1970, the average score in the Pay indicator was 35.7, while it stands at 67.5 today.

One specific law included under the Pay indicator is whether an economy mandates equal remuneration for work of equal value in accordance with International Labor Organization standards. In 1970, only two economies—the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic—mandated this by law. While the proportion of economies adopting this best-practice legislation has increased markedly since, still fewer than half of the 190 economies covered by the Women, Business and the Law data have this legislation in effect today. In general, there is significant room for improvement in the laws that affect a woman’s pay.

By charting the progress made towards achieving gender equality under the law and by highlighting where the gaps remain, Women, Business and the Law strives to provide actionable data that can be used to advance women’s economic opportunities.


Sarah Bunker

Data Fellow, Gender Group, World Bank

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