Published on Voices

It’s time to mobilize the economic power of women

Women with construction hats Women in Yellow Hardhat and Reflective Vest. Photo: Kindel Media/Pexels.

The world has seldom been in a tighter spot. Across the globe, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, with greater economic damage, even in the wealthiest countries. Food insecurity is on the rise, and climate change is making it worse. In 2022, about 2.4 billion people—nearly a third of humanity—lacked year-round access to enough safe and nutritious food, with women and girls bearing the brunt: They account for nearly 60 percent of people facing severe hunger. 

It takes a global economy firing on all cylinders to overcome threats of this magnitude. Today, however, growth is slowing nearly everywhere across the world. By the end of 2024, people in more than 1 out of every 4 developing countries will remain poorer on average than they were on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet policymakers in most countries continue to leave a potentially transformative economic force on the sidelines: women. 

Women constitute half the global population. Yet they are conspicuously absent from decision-making positions, which undercuts economic resilience.  Few heads of state are women. Women remain a minority in corporate boards, executive roles, and leadership positions. Closing the gender gap in employment could raise long-term gross domestic product per capita by nearly 20 percent on average across countries.  In short, the business case for gender equality in the workplace has never been stronger. 

The statistics are stark. Today, around three-quarters of all men participate in the labor force, yet in South Asia, the number is just 1 in 4 women, and in the Middle East and North Africa, just 1 out of every 5. This gender divide hurts economic development. It hinders the efficient allocation of resources. It constrains the labor force. 

Encouraging equal economic inclusion strengthens societies and propels them toward greater resilience. Yet discriminatory laws, feeble enforcement, and societal barriers continue to obstruct women’s progress and hold back nations’ economic potential.

Consider this: in at least 65 countries, women are barred from lucrative professions in transportation, manufacturing, construction, water, energy, and mining—sectors that often offer higher remuneration. When women are permitted to take on jobs identical to those of men, they often encounter a stark pay gap. In 93 countries, it remains legally acceptable to pay women less for jobs of equal value.  

The world can no longer afford to squander the talents of half of humanity. It’s way past time to reform laws, enhance economic opportunities for women, and fortify economies in the process.  It’s not enough, however, merely to enact laws. It’s also essential to enforce them. To be successful, economic reforms depend on complementary policies and effective government institutions. So do legal reforms.

Today, the most significant disparities in laws persist in the Middle East and North Africa, where women have only about half the legal rights of men, even though some countries have significantly stepped up reforms in recent years.

Some regions of the world—sub-Saharan Africa in particular—have made notable progress. In 2022, the latest year for which data are available, more than half of all reforms were implemented on the African continent, with some countries introducing reforms such as prohibiting discrimination in access to credit, reducing domestic violence, or making it easier for women to obtain a passport. As a result, for the first time, the sub-Saharan Africa region pulled ahead of East Asia and the Pacific on its Women, Business, and the Law scores. Countries in East Asia and the Pacific region also rolled out significant reforms, introducing parental leave policies, mandating equal pay for women, and enacting legislation to prohibit sexual harassment. 

Driving greater progress depends on creating a better understanding of the gap between laws enacted and actual outcomes for women’s rights. That is why the World Bank is launching a new strategy to accelerate gender equality and developing a new set of indicators to build evidence on how to narrow the gap between laws and outcomes. It is also why gender equality is at the heart of the World Bank’s mission to create a world free of poverty on a livable planet.

Social norms play a significant role in gender inequality. Governments’ efforts to promote equality, accordingly, need to go beyond legislation. It’s necessary to put in place novel strategies using mass media and educational programs targeting men and women. To usher in true gender parity—in the labor market and beyond—these initiatives must bend social norms that may seem unbendable. 

Marriage and divorce, for example, are often considered private matters in many countries—even when domestic violence is involved. Efforts to reform laws in this area can run into opposition from those who claim to be defenders of national or cultural identity. The resulting stalemate simply prolongs the power disequilibrium between men and women, hurting the cause of women’s empowerment.

Yet governments hold the power to enact meaningful change. By reforming laws, and putting in place strong enforcement mechanisms, they can effectively combat gender discrimination.  

Reforms must extend to equality in the workplace. That includes equal pay, child care, and parental leave policies, and safeguards against harassment. Creating an environment that encourages female entrepreneurship is also crucial: women need greater access to finance and all of the support routinely available to men.

The time has come to level the playing field for women. The world’s ability to bust out of the economic doldrums of the 2020s depends on it.

This blog is a repost from Devex, first published on January 25, 2024 



Anna Bjerde

World Bank Managing Director of Operations

Indermit Gill

Chief Economist of the World Bank Group and Senior Vice President for Development Economics

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