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Women Can’t Crack the Glass Ceiling If They Can’t Reach It

104 countries legally prevent women from certain jobs, while 18 countries still give husbands the right to veto their wives’ jobs. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In its recently released report “Women, Business, and the Law”, the World Bank explores how various countries’ legal strictures prevent or enable women’s economic participation. The news isn’t good and the implications of wasted national income from underemployed women is huge, totaling north of $6.4trn in OECD countries alone.

At the center of the report is an examination of how women are able to perform various economic tasks, from signing contracts and traveling to starting new jobs and opening businesses. Countries are ranked based on how women interact with these tasks, with data focusing on seven indicators: accessing institutions, using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, going to court, building credit, and protection from violence.

Spoiler alert: Women routinely face legal challenges to these tasks in every single country. And the consequences hurt everyone, not just women. Across the wealthier OECD nations, the World Bank estimates that 15% of national income is lost to the gender gap. That’s more than $6.4trn wasted – or on the flip side, an opportunity to add another Germany and France to the global economy if this can be rectified. Given that 70% of global GDP will come from emerging markets by 2030, the gender gap in emerging markets has an even greater impact on the global economy.

Source: World Bank, 2018

For example, 104 countries legally prevent women from certain jobs and 18 countries still give husbands the right to veto his wife’s job. Accessing institutions and property appear to be the most equal between the sexes, whereas policies about building credit and going to court appear to have the farthest to go.

For policy-makers, activists, and business leaders interested in spurring economic growth through increased female participation in the economy, there are a number of legal reforms that are low-hanging fruit. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a recent reform for married women to perform various business tasks without permission from their husbands required updating a colonial-era law imported from Belgium. Other such legal relics litter civil codes across the world; a 1994 update to the Hindu Succession Act in India to equalize property inheritance did not go national until 2005.  

If we’re interested in closing the gender gap, changing mindsets and behaviors are vital. But perhaps just as important is allowing women to at least register a business and open a bank account with ease.