The World Bank recently released their biennial Women, Business and the Law report. The report starts with an interesting anecdote.
Now consider the case of Svetlana Medvedeva, who studied navigation in college and graduated as a navigation officer in the Russian Federation. She applied to work as a ship’s helmsman and was selected. Later she was told she could not have that job as Regulation No. 162 lists helmsman as one of the 456 jobs deemed too arduous, harmful or dangerous for women.
Medvedeva went to court but after five long years, nothing happened and the ban still remains in place. Across the world, such regulations hampering gender equality still exist. According to the report, 104 countries have laws which prevent women from working in specific jobs and 18 countries have laws which allow husbands to legally prevent their wives from working. Meanwhile, in 59 countries there are no laws on sexual harrasment in the workplace.
For the first time, the report also provides scores for each country based its performance on seven indicators: accessing institutions, using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, going to court, building credit and protecting women from violence. The scores range from 0 to 100 with 100 being the best. Unsurprisingly, the OECD high income countries (think UK, New Zealand, Spain) perform the best on these parameters. The worst performers are mostly from the Middle East and North Africa.
Twenty-one economies from across 5 regions receive a score of 0 in the protecting women from violence indicator. In the Middle East and North Africa, 35% of the economies score 0 in this indicator, as do 19% of economies in Sub- Saharan Africa.
The report brings to light the shocking practices followed by countries in which women are practically treated as second-rate citizens. In, Equatorial Guinea a woman needs her husband’s permission to sign a contract. In Chad, Guinea-Bissau and Niger, married women cannot open bank accounts without their husbands’ permissions. Fortunately, in Iran, women now have the luxury of not bringing along a guardian while applying for passports.
Restrictions on jobs
Laws that were made for a different century still apply in many places. These legacy legislations largely reflect outdated standards of safety.
Restrictions on women’s work in mining in many Commonwealth economies, for example, can be traced back to the United Kingdom’s Mines and Collieries Act of 1842. Currently, almost half of Commonwealth economies place limits on the jobs women can do.
Though conditions have improved for both men and women over time, many gender-based restrictions remain. Industry restrictions, such as those on mining, are particularly common. Sixty five economies restrict women from working in mining. Women also face job restrictions in industries such as manufacturing (47 economies), construction (37 economies), energy (29 economies), agriculture (27 economies), water (26 economies) and transportation (21 economies).
And to top it all, in 29 of the 189 economies covered, women cannot work the same night hours as men.
Seen and the Unseen
I don’t agree with all things that the reports classifies as good for women. For e.g.: Zambia is depicted in positive light for passing the Gender Equity and Equality Act which now mandates equal remuneration for work of equal value. While I appreciate the good intentions with which one might of think of mandating equal pay for equal work, it is important to understand why exactly do women face a penalty in the workplace. Interestingly, the answer is hidden within the document itself.
The cost of hiring women of childbearing age is higher for employers in economies in which laws mandate that employers pay for leave benefits…
Technically, the government could pay all the maternity benefits to companies and essentially make the cost of maternal benefits to the company equal to zero. But considering that 91.2% of working women in Zambia work in the informal sector (Ministry of Labour and Social Security, 2016), any expenditure on social protection should probably be directed to the poor rather than the well off persons in formal sector jobs.
It’s time for sexist governments to repeal their archaic laws. Allowing women to work in industries of their choice and at hours of their choice will empower them to earn additional income. A rise in incomes of women is accompanied by a host of other benefits. Economies will grow faster as a valuable resource is freed up to do productive work, earning women everywhere will have better bargaining power within the household, and parents will be willing to invest more in the education of a girl child when they see an increase in the return to education.