WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2014—A new report by the World Bank Group stresses the need for bold, coordinated actions to advance equal opportunities for women in the world of work, such as addressing gender biases early, expanding women’s access to property and finance, and raising legal retirement ages—with major payoffs in tackling poverty.
By virtually every global measure, women are more economically excluded than men, according to Gender at Work. Trends suggest women’s labor force participation worldwide over the last two decades has stagnated, dropping from 57 to 55 percent globally. This is despite accumulating evidence that jobs benefit women, families, businesses, and communities.
“We know that reducing gender gaps in the world of work can yield broad development dividends: improving child health and education, enhancing poverty reduction, and catalyzing productivity,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kimsaid. “This agenda is urgent. Failure to act represents a huge missed opportunity. Progress so far has been too little and too slow.”
“Today, many more girls are going to school and living longer, healthier lives than 30 or even 10 years ago. But this has not translated into broader gains,” Kim said. “Too many women still lack basic freedoms and opportunities and face huge inequalities in the world of work.”
The report says since women face multiple constraints to jobs, starting early and extending throughout their lives, progressive, broad-based, and coordinated policy action is needed to close gender gaps. A companion to the 2013 World Development Report on jobs, it says options should include mainstreaming gender equality into jobs and growth strategies, reforming legal systems, and engaging the private sector in innovative solutions to promote gender equality.
It also says social norms can exacerbate the deprivation and constraints women face. Nearly four in 10 people globally—close to one half in developing countries—agree that when jobs are scarce, men are more entitled to them than women. Common constraints faced by the most disadvantaged women include lack of mobility, time, and skills, exposure to violence, and the absence of basic legal rights.
“Poor women in particular are likely to confront multiple, overlapping constraints,” World Bank Group Gender and Development Director Jeni Klugman, co–author of the report with Matthew Morton, said. “Leveling the playing field and unleashing their economic potential could be a game-changer in tackling extreme poverty.”
In Latin America and the Caribbean, women’s labor force participation has risen by 35 percent since 1990. Analysis by the World Bank Group has found that in 2010, extreme poverty would have been 30 percent higher and average income inequality 28 percent higher, were it not for women’s increased income through increased labor earnings, access to pensions, and labor force participation from 2000-2010.
Country-level diagnostics are vital to help governments in determining the best policies and more involvement by the private sector—by far the largest source of jobs—is critical, the report says. The private sector can lead the way by creating family-friendly working environment and policies, attracting women into non-traditional roles and sectors, and reviewing human resource policies and systems for addressing discrimination and harassment. And more investment is needed to fill major gaps in data and knowledge.
To advance gender equality at work, the report recommends governments target actions that cover a woman’s life cycle—saying interventions that focus only on women of productive age start too late and end too early. Biases can begin very early in life, sometimes in subtle ways, making it ultimately difficult and costly to resolve inequality.
Gender at Work recommends a range of policies for governments to consider over a woman’s lifetime:
During childhood and youth, policies can tackle inequalities through education and training, such as incentives for girls to attend school.
For women of productive age, actions to be considered include eliminating restrictions in labor and employment; allowing and encouraging women’s ownership and joint-titling of land; and enforcing equitable inheritance laws. Other strategies include family-friendly leave and flexibility policies, affordable childcare and early child development programs, and infrastructure development to reduce burdens on women’s time for household and care work. Equal access to assets and financial services are vital. Addressing constraints outside the formal sector is particularly important in low-income countries, since most people—and more so women—do not work for wages and salaries.
For older women, governments can support equitable old-age labor regulations combined with appropriate social protection. Retirement and pension ages for men and women should be equal and targeted programs can upgrade skills among older women willing and able to work, while pension policies can provide protection without discouraging women’s work.
The report warns that ageing populations in the developing world will become increasingly important for governments to consider. Through 2050, the old-age dependency ratio in developing countries is expected to soar by 144 percent, during which time the child dependency ratio is projected to fall by 20 percent, altering the nature of the care burden in families and societies.
“Today only half of women’s productive potential is being utilized globally. This is a waste, since gender equality in the world of work is a win-win for development and for business. The commitment must begin with fostering girls’ and boys’ skills and aspirations equally from their early years, so it stays with them long enough that they and future generations enjoy a more equitable and prosperous world,” Klugman said.
The International Labor Organization estimates almost half of women’s productive potential globally is unutilized compared to 22 percent of men’s. Closing these gender gaps could yield enormous dividends for development: A Goldman Sachs study finds that narrowing gender gaps in employment could push per capita income in emerging markets up to 14 percent higher by 2020.