The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law series has tracked law reforms and gender equality since 1970 and has amassed enormous data-based evidence linking gender parity and economic security.
Over the last 50 years, countries have adopted more than 2,000 law reforms across all measured categories of equality, including women’s mobility, marital rights, workplace environment, rights to own assets and to start businesses and pay and pension equality.
But, discouragingly, the rate of reforms has slowed over the last 15 years and 2022 was historically low for legal reforms globally. Today, only 14 countries – all high-income economies – out of 190 provide women the same legal rights as men.
In other words, 176 countries still prevent equal economic opportunity to 2.4 billion women. At today’s pace, it will take at least another 50 years for women to reach parity with men across the world: young girls today will reach retirement age before gender parity is achieved globally – two full generations of talent, productivity, innovation and opportunity squandered, to the detriment of women, families, communities and countries.
One area of vital importance is the workplace. Across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) today, fewer than one in four working-age women has a job, and female labor force participation is the lowest in the world. Lack of access to education, job-training, assets, capital, adequate nutrition and healthcare, as well as child marriage, gender violence and workplace discrimination obstruct major progress.
The pathway to female workforce participation is a multidimensional challenge. It must be mandated by governments, enforced by courts, embraced by companies, reinforced by banks and investors and supported by society. It requires a holistic approach:
First, government policies and laws are required tofacilitate women’s participation in the economy. Laws are needed that permit women to acquire and own assets in order to start, own and operate businesses and to require non-discrimination in hiring, promotion and career opportunities in the workplace.
Second, courts and regulatory bodies with capacity and commitment are needed in order to apply and enforce those laws fully, fairly, consistently and ethically, including the handling of complaints of discrimination and the imposition of sanctions on violators.
Third, companies need to adopt policies of non-discrimination, anti-harassment, equal pay, participation in benefits, including those relating to healthcare, parenthood and pensions, career opportunities and systems to ensure faithful implementation and grievance procedures.
Fourth, banks and investors can do their part. Data shows that women-owned businesses have lower default rates than male-owned enterprises, and banks should treat women entrepreneurs fairly in assessing their creditworthiness and providing financing.
Fifth, private equity and fund investors should examine prospective investee companies through a gender lens, taking into account a company’s commitment to gender equality and corporate data demonstrating that commitment with results showing women at all levels of the corporate ladder, from entry level to the executive suite and the boardroom.
Investors should use gender as a barometer of corporate competence, values and prospects in the same way they consider environmental and anti-corruption capacity and compliance, managerial qualityand financial results.
Finally, society at large should recognise that improving women’s access to education, healthcare, capital, jobs and businesses, and protecting their basic rights and dignity can enhance – and not undermine – the important roles they play in family and community. In that sense, legislative change often needs to be accompanied by shifts in gender and social norms.
Studies show that, if Egypt’s female labor participation rate matched that of males’, GDP would increase by 34 percent. Encouragingly, MENA and Africa were leaders over the last five years, introducing more than 20 law reforms on retirement, pensions and discrimination in the workplace. Egypt has introduced innovations in financial services that will facilitate women’s participation in finance, including mobile and electronic payment systems, e-wallets, access to credit, together with data protection and cybersecurity.
Still, Women, Business and the Law ranks MENA lowest in gender equality in economic opportunity, scoring 53.2 out of a possible 100 points.
Not only can this discouraging course be avoided but it can be reversed. The evidence is compelling, the course is clear and the timing is urgent.
*The writer is senior vice president and group general counsel, the World Bank Group.