All are equal in the eyes of the law. Except, it seems, if you’re a woman. Of 173 economies covered in a recent World Bank study on barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and employment, 155 of them have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities.

The report examined differences between men and women in areas such as their legal right to register a business, travel outside the home or country, open a bank account or own property.

In some areas, the findings are pretty encouraging. Since the last edition of the biennial report, 65 economies have carried out 94 reforms aimed at increasing women’s economic opportunities. The Middle East and North Africa, along with Europe and Central Asia, stand out for the progress they’ve made in the past two years.


But one indicator in particular shows how far we still have to go to achieve universal gender parity: in 18 countries, women still need their husband’s permission to get a job.

While women outside these countries won’t need a guardian’s approval to work, they could still find it difficult getting a job in some fields. For example, any entrepreneurial Argentinian women looking to set up their own distilleries are out of luck, as this is just one of many professions open only to men in the country. The same goes for any budding female woodworkers in Russia.

The report, which identifies a total of 943 legal gender differences across the countries it analysed, points out that these laws are not just damaging to women but to society more widely. “These inequalities impede development, hinder prosperity and undermine national competitiveness.”

Have you read?
Are you working for free because you’re a woman?
Why gender inequality is worse than you think
Where’s the best place to be a woman?

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an Editor at World Economic Forum

Image: A veiled Saudi woman makes coffee as she works at a coffee shop in Tabuk. REUTERS/Mohamed Alhwaity