For faster growth, Central Asia must confront biased perceptions about the value of women’s work

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Sewing shop
Sewing shop, Kyrgyz Republic.

Globally, women earn about 80% of what men earn on average. But the gap is larger in Central Asia: working women earn about 60% of what men earn in Tajikistan, 61% in Uzbekistan, 75% in the Kyrgyz Republic, and 78% in Kazakhstan.

Where women are empowered, they can contribute their full potential—leading to a more diverse and dynamic workforce. Countries with higher levels of gender equality have much higher national income per person, and faster growth. But in Central Asia, a pattern of low pay and low employment rates among women directly reduces the size of the region’s economies and increases the number of people living in poverty.

If women across Central Asia were to participate in equal measure to men, national income would be anywhere from 27% higher in Kazakhstan to 63% higher in Tajikistan. In Uzbekistan, equalizing the average wage among women and men who are already working would alone pull more than 700,000 people out of poverty.

These potential economic benefits are massive. So, what prevents the region from achieving them?

Research using the World Bank’s Listening to Central Asia surveys, which on monthly basis interview members of thousands of households in four countries of the region, points to restrictive gender norms and the ways these norms translate into discrimination. Over two-thirds of respondents across the region in 2022 said that women should prioritize caregiving and home responsibilities over work outside of the home, while men should be the primary breadwinners (see Figure 1). Between 20-50% also said that married women should earn less than their husbands for the sake of family harmony. And these patterns were relatively similar whether respondents lived in urban or rural areas.

All of this demonstrates the high prevalence of restrictive gender norms and expectations that discourage women's full participation in the labor market.

Figures 1 and 2

But while these patterns may describe individual preferences, they do not by themselves reveal discrimination. Are gender imbalances simply a matter of individual preferences, or do structural barriers limit access to opportunity and reduce women’s wages compared to men’s?

To disentangle these explanations, we undertook two experiments to test for gender discrimination.

The first experiment took the form of short stories, called vignettes. Each story described a worker engaged in a well-known occupation (such as a doctor or teacher) and at the end, each story stated the amount the worker was paid. The stories were fictional and standardized so that all workers were described the same way, except for one key difference: in half of the stories, the worker’s name was female, and in the other half, the workers name was male. Survey respondents were asked whether they thought the person described was underpaid, fairly paid, or overpaid. Over the course of two months, we asked more than 70,000 evaluations the fairness of earnings.

The results revealed clear and systematic bias against women.

Even though the prompts were identical in every other respect, respondents were 13% more likely to say wages were too high when the subject of the vignette was a woman, and 34% more likely to say they were too low when the subject was a man.

The second experiment focused on discrimination in hiring new workers. We sent fictitious resumes to hundreds of real job advertisements in Uzbekistan. The qualifications, experience, and other details for each resume were identical—again, except for a single detail. Half of the applications used a woman’s name. As in the first study, this seemingly tiny discrepancy resulted in dramatic swings in the outcome.

After tallying the results, we found that for a woman to get a call back for a job as a driver she would have to submit 180% more applications than a man with identical qualifications. For a man to get an interview as an accountant, he would have to send 79% more applications than a woman candidate, and for an office manager job, as many as 685% more applications.

Figures 3 and 4

These experiments show that social norms drive unequal economic outcomes between men and women across Central Asia. Beyond individual preferences, barriers limit opportunities to both men and women with respect to their work and incomes, disproportionately harming employment prospects for women. Through lower incomes and less economic activity, these patterns contribute to higher poverty rates and slower economic growth.

Removing legal barriers to equality is a critical first step to addressing this, and several governments are taking decisive action. Last year, Uzbekistan was the first in Central Asia to join 95 other countries around the world and almost all high-income countries in mandating equal pay between men and women for work of equal value. The other governments in Central Asia should follow suit and actively implement equal pay requirements in practice.

In 2021, Kazakhstan lifted restrictions on “banned professions” where women were previously not permitted to work. Countries in Central Asia that continue banning women from professions should follow this example and remove all such restrictions.

However, legal reform alone will not reverse the social norms that perpetuate gender imbalances in work and pay. To tackle these inequalities, employers, workers, governments, and the public must confront widespread perceptions about the role and value of women’s work. Without general agreement that discrimination and inequality of opportunity are injustices to be addressed, Central Asia will continue to underperform in reducing poverty and achieving inclusive growth.

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Dipak Kapoor
May 11, 2023

Very well articulated. Insightful