If you are an aspiring snowmobile driver in Kazakhstan and happen to be a woman, you’re out of luck. The same goes for operating cranes at sea, among other labor-intensive jobs in the country, which bans women from dozens of such positions. It could be worse. In Russia alone, women are barred from 456 types of jobs, including the unglamorous but possibly lucrative toil of furnace and flue cleaning.
Although the legal status of women has improved tremendously in recent decades in many parts of the world, gender inequality remains a huge barrier to economic growth in both rich and poor nations alike, whether it is as basic as getting a job or starting a business.
In a new report, “Women, Business and the Law 2014: Removing Restrictions to Enhance Gender Equality,” the World Bank found that 90 percent of the 143 national economies it examined still impose legal differences based on gender in at least one of the study’s indicators. (The World Bank is part of the UN system.)
The 15 countries with no legal differences between women and men in the areas that were measured are Armenia, Canada, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Mexico, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain and United States. The report measured legal gender differences by comparing men and women of the same marital status in such indicators as applying for a passport and traveling outside the home.
Reductions of legal differences between men and women have been found elsewhere, to some degree. Married women in Brazil, for example, won the right to be the head of household and administer material assets in 1988; in South Africa, women were considered legal minors under their husbands’ guardianship until a reform in 1998 granted them full adult status.
The Ivory Coast leads globally with the most gender-parity reforms enacted in the last two years; regionally, the most improvements in gender parity have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, a far cry from where the region stood a half-century ago, with the most restrictions.
The report uses new historical numbers captured in the World Bank’s 50 years of women’s legal-rights database; since 1960, more than half the restrictions placed on women’s legal rights in 100 countries in two indicators, gaining access to institutions and holding property, were eliminated by 2010.
“The law alone is not enough,” said Dr. Linda Longmire, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. It is also important to create “a culture which thinks about gender in more egalitarian ways, a culture that respects women, one that allows them to define their roles and genuinely welcomes them, encourages them to join in the economic development in the country.”
The Middle East and North Africa have changed the least since 1960, with South Asia and Africa following. New gender-related legal barriers have been introduced in certain countries in these regions in recent decades. In Yemen, gains in women’s rights have been reversed in large swaths. In Iran, after the Islamic revolution, the law that equalized the right to work for both spouses was overturned in 1979 to allow husbands to keep their wives from working. The report found that 15 countries still have such a restriction today.
This “reversal of progress is in some ways normal,” Dr. Longmire said. “Change in all these levels — economic, political and cultural — doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s still possible to keep moving forward even though it’s not easy or automatic.”
In West Africa, Mauritania has labor codes that treat women the same as children, making employers more likely to think that women are incapable of carrying out certain jobs.
In all the countries studied, married women face more legal hindrances than unmarried women. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, married women must have their husband’s permission to sue in civil matters unless the suit is against their husband. That also applies to getting a job, opening a bank account, signing a contract and choosing where to live.
Nations with the most legal gender differences tend to provide fewer incentives, like the length of paid maternity leave, to women’s economic participation. Countries providing more incentives have greater income equality; on average, high-income economies have fewer gender-law differences than middle- and low-income ones.
Hungary, Slovakia and Spain, with no legal differences, have six or more incentives. Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have more than 20 legal differences and few incentives.
The most extensive and medieval restrictions on women working are found in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where countries are transitioning from Soviet style markets to capitalism. In Belarus, for example, women are barred from more than 250 jobs, including diver, lumberjack and tractor driver.
“We see how many places are not creating the space for women, are not encouraging the transformation of women’s roles and are therefore handcuffing their economy in the process,” Dr. Longmire said.
The reasons countries cited for barring women from certain types of jobs include protecting women’s “physical integrity and reproductive capacity.” Some restrictions can be vague, conveniently leaving discretion to the employer; some countries deem working at night “morally harmful” to women.
The report also says that restrictions on hours, sectors and occupations can lead to occupational segregation and women confined to low-paying work. The rules discourage women from obtaining higher education and pursuing careers in corporate boards, parliaments and local governments.
Increasing women in leadership positions can improve gender equality. In villages administered by women councilors in the Indian state of West Bengal, for example, parents expressed higher aspirations for their daughters’ educations and careers, and adolescent girls attained higher schooling levels while spending less time on domestic chores.
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Elisa dos Santos is a business economics major and presidential scholar at Hofstra University Honors College and an intern at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Washington. She is also a co-founder and president of the Hofstra University Hunger Project and a member of the Hofstra Gold Leadership Program. She is fluent in Portuguese.