When women went to work in factories during World War II, they shattered the myth that they weren’t capable of doing the same work as men.

Today, though, despite a trend towards greater equality, some countries still ban women from certain jobs. This is particularly prevalent in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, mining, construction, energy and water.

The World Bank says there are 104 economies with labour laws that restrict the types of jobs women can undertake, and when and where they are permitted to work. It estimates that this affects the employment choices of 2.7 billion women.

The type of discrimination women face varies from state to state. In 123 countries there are no laws to stop sexual harassment in education, and 59 countries don’t legislate against it in the workplace. In 18 countries husbands have the legal right to prevent their wives from working, while four countries prohibit women from registering a company.

Restrictions on women’s choice of work

Image: The Economist

“Men-only” occupations often include job types deemed too dangerous or strenuous for women to perform. In Russia, women aren't allowed to drive trains or pilot ships.

Other types of work are thought to be inappropriate for women. In Kazakhstan, women cannot cut, eviscerate or skin cattle, pigs or other ruminants.

General safety concerns govern some limits on when women are allowed to work. Female shopkeepers in Mumbai cannot work as late as their male counterparts, and Malaysian women are not permitted to transport goods and passengers at night.

Outdated laws linger

Some of these discriminatory laws date back some time. The Economist points to the Industrial Revolution as the origin of the practice of preventing women from working at night. In 1948, the International Labour Organization still viewed night work as unsuitable for women.

Some of the laws are leftover from colonial days, with ex-colonies still enforcing either the Spanish Civil Code, the French Napoleonic Code or the British Commonwealth laws.

Other rules have been introduced more recently. In 2013, Viet Nam instituted a ban on women driving tractors over 50 horsepower.

‘No women, no growth’

Sarah Iqbal, program manager of the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law project, states: “Unfortunately, laws are a straight line for men and a maze for many women around the world, and that needs to change. There is no reason to keep women out of certain jobs or prevent them from owning a business. Our message is simple: no women, no growth.”

The project highlights how employment discrimination can lead to lost productivity. As well as restrictions on where and when females can work, women are less likely to establish a business in countries where there are no laws protecting them from workplace sexual harassment. The World Bank estimates that half a billion women are without such protection.

Women are also less likely to hold leadership positions in countries where their freedom to act independently is restricted. World Bank figures suggest 850 million women live with limits on their freedom of movement.

However, things are changing and the overriding trend is towards greater equality, not less.

The catalyst for change in some industries is technology, as advances make certain jobs safer and less reliant on muscle power.

Elsewhere, economic forces are helping to remove restrictive practices. For example, women are working as truck drivers in eastern European countries, filling the void left by male drivers who sought higher paying work in other parts of the EU.

Attitudes are changing, too. Leading the way on gender equality, Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for almost a decade. And countries like Bulgaria, Kiribati and Poland are removing all restrictive practices relating to gender from their laws, while Colombia and Congo have removed some discriminatory rules.