Gender Equity Requires Changes in Law, Not Just in Culture

Even in developed countries, legal barriers can stunt economic independence for women.

Women workers from a Belgian coal mine in 1910. (Library of Congress)

Women’s inclusion in the workforce on a mass scale is relatively new. In 1950 only about one-third of women in the U.S. were active workers; by 2000, nearly two-thirds were. And while there’s still plenty of gender inequity in the workplace (the wage gap, parental-leave policies, the paltry number of women at the very top, etc.), women in many countries now enjoy more economic freedom and opportunity than their mothers and grandmothers.

Women’s labor-force participation doesn’t alone signify economic freedom, but it is one of the mechanisms by which women can build wealth and gain financial independence. A new report from the World Bank takes a look at the legal status of women around the world and finds that while there has been progress in many countries when it comes to making financial freedom more accessible, laws still exist that can make women especially economically vulnerable.

Legal barriers that restrict women’s opportunities to work are the most obvious culprits of gender inequality across the globe. In Russia, for instance, researchers found that women are legally barred from working 456 different (and pretty specific) jobs including woodworking and driving trucks that carry agricultural goods. Similar laws are also prevalent in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and North Africa. And while wealthier, more developed nations are less likely to have explicit legal prohibitions on women working, they do exist. Eight of 32 OECD high-income countries, including Israel, France, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, have laws that bar women from certain jobs. French law prohibits women moving loads that weigh more than 45 kilograms via a wheelbarrow. And in Argentina, women are barred from loading and unloading ships, the paper finds.

Similarly, the lack of government-sponsored paid maternity and paternity leave policies can also exacerbate gender inequalities within the workforce. The greater prevalence of paid maternity leave, rather than paternity leave, forces more women into primary care-taking roles and away from their careers. Forcing companies to decide on and pay for paid-leave options also plays a role in the cost analysis that firms do when hiring women of childbearing age. In some instances, this means that firms could be reticent to offer paid leave or even hesitate to hire women who are of childbearing age for specific roles. The countries with the least adequate parental-leave policies were Tonga, Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and the United States, according to the study.

It’s easy to see how limiting the job prospects of women can hamper their financial futures. But laws preventing women from working a variety of jobs are by no means the only method of holding women back economically. Laws that limit the ability of women to inherit or hold assets, especially property, can play a major role in economic insecurity. For example, in Ghana, inherited or gifted homes make up 30 percent of owner-occupied dwellings. That means that disabling or discouraging inheritance for women can put them in a precarious financial position, especially in the event that their husband or male family members die.

Conversely, empowering women’s inheritance can have a profound impact. The paper cites evidence from India’s 1994 reform effort of the Hindu Succession Act, which granted women the same rights to family inheritance as men. After the reform, women were more likely to have bank accounts, and parents invested more in the education of their female children—mothers in particular spent twice as much on their daughters’ education. There were other improvements too. After the reform the sanitation of home bathrooms improved, suggesting that the shift in the law gave women more power on the home front.