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40 Economies Make 62 Legal Reforms to Advance Women’s Economic Participation

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The regulatory environment for women’s economic participation has improved over the past two years, with 40 economies enacting 62 reforms that will help women – half the world’s population – realize their potential and contribute to economic growth and development, says a new World Bank study. Still, the results are uneven — women in many countries have only a fraction of the legal rights of men, holding back their economic and social development.

The study, Women, Business and the Law 2020, measures 190 economies, tracking how laws affect women at different stages in their working lives and focusing on those laws applicable in the main business city. It covers reforms in eight areas that are associated with women’s economic empowerment, conducted from June 2017 to September 2019.

“Legal rights for women are both the right thing to do and good from an economic perspective. When women can move more freely, work outside the home and manage assets, they are more likely to join the workforce and help strengthen their country’s economies,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “We stand ready to help until every woman can move through her life without facing legal barriers to her success.”

The areas of Workplace and Marriage saw many reforms, especially in the enactment of laws that protect women from violence. In the last two years, eight economies enacted legislation on domestic violence for the first time. Seven economies now have new legal protections against sexual harassment in employment.

Twelve economies improved their laws in the area of Pay, removing restrictions on the industries, jobs and hours that women can work. Globally, the most frequent reforms were in areas related to Parenthood, with16 economies enacting positive changes. Reforms included expansion of the amount of paid maternity leave available to mothers, introduction of paid paternity leave and prohibition of dismissal of pregnant employees.

Achieving legal gender equality requires strong political will and a concerted effort by governments, civil society, and international organizations, among others. But legal and regulatory reforms can serve as an important catalyst to improve the lives of women as well as their families and communities.

“This study helps us understand where laws facilitate or hinder women’s economic participation. It has incentivized countries to undertake reforms that can eliminate gender imbalances,” said World Bank Group Chief Economist Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg. “Achieving equality will take time, but it is encouraging that all regions have improved. We hope that this research will continue to serve as an important tool to inform policy making and level the playing field for women.”

The WBL index measures only formal laws and the regulations which govern a woman’s ability to work or own businesses– a country’s actual norms and practices are not captured. The global average score was 75.2, which improved slightly from 73.9 two years ago. Clearly, much more work remains as women in many countries have only a fraction of the legal rights of men, holding them back from opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship.

The eight areas covered by the index are structured around women’s interactions with the law through their careers: Mobility, Workplace, Pay, Marriage, Parenthood, Entrepreneurship, Assets, and Pension.

Reforms are urgently needed in the area of Parenthood, which scored just 53.9 on average. In almost half of economies that provide any form of paid maternity leave, the burden falls on the employer, making it more costly to hire women. But paid maternity leave can help to retain female employees, reducing turnover cost and improving productivity.  These longer-term benefits often outweigh the short-term costs to employers, according to the study.  

Of the ten economies that improved the most, six are in the Middle East and North Africa, three are in Sub-Saharan Africa and one is in South Asia. While there was considerable progress, the Middle East and North Africa remains the region with the most room for improvement.  Eight countries now have a score of 100, with Canada joining Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden due to a recent reform in parental leave.

Regional Highlights

Advanced Economies: Advanced economies continue to make progress on the indicators. Of the 40 economies with scores above 90, 27 are OECD high-income economies. The Czech Republic and the United States reformed laws related to paternity and parental leave, giving parents more opportunity to share childcare responsibilities, while Italy and Slovenia equalized pension benefits between men and women.

East Asia and the Pacific: Four economies conducted four reforms in three areas. Thailand introduced a reform in the area of getting paid, and Timor-Leste in the area of getting a pension. Fiji increased the duration of paid maternity leave and introduced paid leave for fathers for the first time.  

Europe and Central Asia: Four economies enacted five reforms in five areas, and two economies changed laws to reduce opportunities. Armenia enacted legislation protecting women from domestic violence. Cyprus introduced paid paternity leave. Georgia adopted legislation to provide for civil remedies in the case of the unfair dismissal of a victim of sexual harassment. Moldova lifted some restrictions on women’s employment by limiting them to pregnant, nursing, and postpartum women.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Four economies made four reforms in four areas. Barbados enacted legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. Peru and Paraguay received high scores in the 90s. Economies in this region made important strides toward lifting restrictions placed on women in the 1980s and 1990s, but the pace of reforms slowed over the past decade.

Middle East and North Africa: Seven economies enacted 20 reforms in seven areas, although one economy implemented a negative reform. Saudi Arabia made the biggest improvement globally, enacting reforms in six out of eight areas measured including in women’s mobility, sexual harassment, retirement age and economic activity. The United Arab Emirates also reformed in five areas. Djibouti, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia implemented an additional nine reforms.

South Asia: Four economies enacted seven reforms in four areas.Nepal introduced a new labor law that prohibits discrimination in employment, paternity leave and new pensions regulation. Three other countries also enacted reforms: Pakistan and Sri Lanka made progress in the area of Parenthood. In India, the state of Maharashtra eliminated restrictions on women’s jobs.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Eleven economies implemented 16 reforms in seven areas. The Democratic Republic of Congo introduced social insurance maternity benefits and equalized retirement ages. In Côte d’Ivoire, spouses now have equal rights to own and manage property. Mali enacted reforms on non-discrimination in employment. São Tomé and Príncipe adopted a new labor code to meet job market demands and bring laws in compliance with international standards. South Sudan adopted its first labor law since independence.

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Sustainable infrastructure can drive development and COVID-19 recovery

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Zimbabwe has long struggled with crippling power outages, some of which can last up to 18 hours a day. The cuts have been especially hard on the country’s hospitals and clinics, forcing nurses to deliver babies by candlelight and doctors to postpone emergency surgeries.

But that is starting to change. Since 2017, Zimbabwe has installed solar panels atop more than 400 healthcare facilities, steadying power supplies and replacing expensive and polluting diesel-fired generators. The “Solar for Health” initiative is a prime example of the type of sustainable infrastructure development that will be vital to combating climate change, improving public services and driving the economic recovery from COVID-19.

So says a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It urges planners and policymakers to take a more systematic approach to sustainable infrastructure, incorporating it into their long-term development plans and ensuring human-made systems work with natural ones.

“We can no longer use the business-as-usual approach to infrastructure, which is leading to ecological destruction and massive carbon dioxide emissions. Investments in sustainable infrastructure are not only environmentally sound but also bring economic and social benefits. Low-carbon, nature-positive infrastructure projects can help minimize the sector’s environmental footprint and offer a more sustainable, cost-effective path to closing the infrastructure gap,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.   

A source of emissions

Built infrastructure, which includes everything from office blocks to highways to power plants, is responsible for 70 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, mentions the report, the International Good Practice Principles for Sustainable Infrastructure. Poorly designed, infrastructure can also displace communities, endanger wildlife and weigh, often for decades, on public finances.

“There is an urgent need to include sustainable and climate resilient infrastructure as an integral part of green growth to deliver energy, water, and transportation solutions that will facilitate opportunity, connection, and sustainable growth,” said Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the Global Green Growth Institute, a UNEP partner.”

Ban said the new report is a “very useful guiding framework for governments to lay the groundwork for a future where sustainable infrastructure is the only kind of infrastructure we know.”

To help countries reach that goal, the new UNEP report offers guiding principles for governments to integrate sustainability into their decision making on infrastructure.  Among other things, it recommends that states align their infrastructure planning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, humanity’s blueprint for a better future. It also urges them to minimize the environmental footprint of construction projects and meaningfully engage local communities in infrastructure decision making.

Return on investment

The report also highlighted the economic return on sustainable infrastructure, which includes renewable energy plants, eco-friendly public buildings and low-carbon transport. Investing in renewables and energy efficiency, it said, creates five times more jobs than investments in fossil fuels. Similarly, investing in resilient infrastructure in developing countries can create a return of US$4 for every US$1 invested, according to the World Bank.

Trend setters

Alongside the report, UNEP released a series of case studies that showed how many countries are finding innovative ways to develop sustainable infrastructure.

In Ecuador, the government has turned to nature-based solutions to bolster water supplies to several major cities. By replanting trees, fencing off rivers and purchasing land for conservation, one region has revived watersheds that support more than 400,000 people.

In Singapore, which is aiming to have 80 per cent of its buildings certified as green by 2030, builders have used recycled materials to construct everything from schools to corporate offices. (The country was the first to unveil a building constructed entirely of recycled concrete aggregate and demolition waste.)

With COVID-19 sparking a global wave of stimulus spending, Ambroise Fayolle, Vice President of the European Investment Bank said the publication of the principles “is timely, reminding us all of the importance of building back better by tackling the long-term challenges we face.”  

UN Environment

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COVID-19 is reversing the important gains made over the last decade for women

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Progress for women in work could be back at 2017 levels by the end of 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to analysis conducted for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index, which measures female economic empowerment across 33 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries*.  The evidence emerging globally is that the damage from COVID-19 and government response and recovery policies, is disproportionately being felt by women.

For nine years, countries across the OECD* made consistent gains towards women’s economic empowerment. However, due to COVID-19 this trend will now be reversed, with the Index estimated to fall 2.1 points between 2019 and 2021, according to analysis undertaken for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index. The Index will not begin to recover until 2022, where it should gain back 0.8 points. 

In order to undo the damage caused by COVID-19 to women in work – even by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.

Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader, People and Organization at PwC, said:

“The setbacks that we are experiencing with COVID-19 in terms of the workforce tell a worrisome story. While the impacts are being felt by everyone across the globe, we are seeing women exiting the workforce at a faster rate than men. Women carry a heavier burden than men of unpaid care and domestic work. This has increased during the pandemic, and it is limiting women’s time and options to contribute to the economy. In the labour market, more women work in hard-hit human contact-intensive service sectors  – such as accomodation and food services, and retail trade. With social distancing and lockdowns, these sectors have seen unprecedented job losses.”   

Between 2019 and 2020, the annual OECD unemployment rate increased by 1.7 percentage points for women (from 5.7% in 2019 to 7.4% in 2020). In the US, the female unemployment rate increased sharply from 4% in March 2020 to 16% in April 2020. The female unemployment rate stayed high for the remainder of 2020, ending the year in December 2020 at 6.7%, 3 percentage points higher than in December 2019.  In the UK, the full impact of job losses from COVID-19 is yet to be realised due to job retention schemes, but furlough data shows that women are at greater risk of losing their jobs when these schemes come to an end. Between July and October 2020, a total of 15.3 million jobs were furloughed in the UK. For furloughed jobs for which gender was known, 52% of these were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.*** 

The disproportionate burden of unpaid childcare falls on women

Before COVID-19 hit, women on average spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week (according to research by UN Women). During COVID-19, women have taken on an even greater share and now spend 7.7 more hours per week on unpaid childcare than men**  – this ‘second shift’ equates to 31.5 hours per week; almost as much an extra full-time job. 

This increase in unpaid labour has already reduced women’s contribution to the economy. If this extra burden lasts, it will cause more women to leave the labour market permanently, reversing progress towards gender equality and reducing productivity in the economy. 

While some women may choose to leave the workforce temporarily due to COVID-19 with the intention to return post-pandemic, research shows that career breaks have long-term impacts on women’s labour market prospects, and women will return to lower paid and lower skilled positions. 

PwC Women in Work 2021 Index (performance prior to COVID-19 pandemic)

Iceland continues to hold the top spot on the Index out of OECD countries. It is a consistent strong performer in female labour force participation (84%), has a small participation rate gap (5%), and even smaller female unemployment rate (3%).  

Greece saw the largest increase in terms of Index score between 2018 and 2019, driven by improvement in all labour market indicators except for the share of full-time female employees. On the contrary, Portugal experienced the largest decline in Index score between 2018 and 2019 due to a widening of its gender pay gap by 5 percentage points.

New Zealand and Slovenia both increased their rankings on the Index by one position. New Zealand saw an upward trend across all five indicators and has risen by 5 spots on the Index over the course of nine years. Government policy and a history of female representation in political institutions have helped to drive these gains. Slovenia’s improvement was driven by a fall in the participation rate gap and in female unemployment, as well as an increase in the share of full-time female employment. 

If OECD countries increased their rates of female employment to match Sweden’s (consistently the top performer), the gain to GDP would be over US$6 trillion per annum. The US, with one of the highest female unemployment rates, is expected to gain the most – as much as US$1.7 trillion per annum. 

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65% of Adults Think Race, Ethnicity or National Origin Affects Job Opportunities

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A recent Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey has found that 65% of all adults believe that, in their country, someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin influences their employment opportunities. When considering their own race, ethnicity, or national origin, more than one-third say it has impacted their personal employment opportunities.

The online survey was conducted between 22 January and 5 February 2021, among more than 20,000 adults in 27 countries. It also reveals that 60% of adults think that someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin plays a role in education opportunities, access to housing, and access to social services.

As Black History Month in the United States draws to a close, awareness of the impacts of race, ethnicity and national origin on opportunities in life is exceptionally high. It follows a tumultuous year when the pandemic put inequality into the spotlight, and events in the US sparked international protests as long-simmering, systemic racial inequities came to the forefront.

Of those surveyed, 46% say the events of the past year have increased differences in opportunities as well as access to housing, education, employment and/or social services in their country. In comparison, 43% say the events have had no impact on differences and 12% say they have decreased differences.

About 60% of respondents in Latin America, Spain and South Africa, and nearly half in France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sweden, Belgium and the US say recent events have increased race, ethnicity, or national origin-based differences in opportunities in their country, compared to only about one in three in Germany, Poland and Saudi Arabia, one in four in China, and one in seven in Russia.

Perceptions versus the reported personal experience of inequality also vary significantly in countries. Compared with the 27-country average for all four types of opportunities measured, several countries stand out.

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