The glass ceiling is a well-known concept. Talented women prevented from advancing in the workplace by obstacles including a gender pay gap, a lack of support for working mothers, and outright sexism. But in some countries women are prevented from starting a career at all, never mind reaching their full potential.

A study by the World Bank has highlighted the restrictions placed on a woman’s right to work and the regions in which those restrictions are most severe.

Of the 187 economies included in the study, countries in the Middle East and North Africa are ranked lowest overall for providing equal opportunities for women who want to work. Saudi Arabia places more restrictions on a woman’s right to work than any other country in the world.

Image: World Bank: Women, Business and Law Report 2019

In the Middle East and North Africa, moral objections to women in the workplace create significant barriers. Industries in this region also conform to gender stereotypes, with jobs in sectors such as construction and mining seen as suitable only for men.

In regions where cultural and religious barriers are less of a challenge, other obstacles get in the way. For example, in South Asia, 63% of territories restrict a woman’s right to work the night shift, which is likely to make employers less willing to hire them in the first place.

Image: World Bank Twitter feed

The World Bank report does present some hope for working women. In the 10-year period covered by the research, 131 economies made 274 reforms to laws and regulations increasing gender equality, most notably regarding protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 found that the proportion of women to men participating in the labour force had fallen. Reasons included a lack of support for working mothers, a disproportionate impact of automation on jobs traditionally performed by women, and barriers to women entering the booming science and technology sector.

At the current rate of change, the data in the Gender Gap Report 2018 suggest that it will take 202 years to bring about parity in the workplace.