The global gender gap for women in the workplace is far wider than previously thought. When legal differences involving violence and childcare are taken into account, women enjoy fewer than two-thirds the rights of men. No country provides equal opportunity for women, not even the wealthiest economies.

These are the key takeaways of a report from The World Bank, entitled Women, Business, and the Law. It offers a comprehensive picture of the obstacles that women face in entering the global workforce and contributing to greater prosperity, for themselves, their families, and their communities. It expands the scope of its analysis. Specifically, it adds indicators critical in opening up or restricting women’s options: safety from violence and access to childcare services. When those measures are included, women on average enjoy just 64% of the legal protections that men do. This compares to a previous estimate of 77%.

The gender gap is even wider in practice

For the first time, the research assesses the gap between legal reforms and actual outcomes for women in 190 economies. The analysis reveals a shocking implementation gap says The World Bank. Although laws on the books imply that women enjoy roughly two-thirds the rights of men, countries on average have established less than 40% of the systems needed for full implementation. For example, 98 economies have enacted legislation mandating equal pay for women for work of equal value. Yet only 35 economies have adopted pay-transparency measures or enforcement mechanisms to address the pay gap.

Effective implementation of equal-opportunity laws depends on an adequate supporting framework. This includes strong enforcement mechanisms, tracking gender-related pay disparities and the availability of healthcare services for women who survive violence.

“Women have the power to turbocharge the sputtering global economy. Yet discriminatory laws and practices prevent women from working or starting businesses on an equal footing with men. Closing this gap could raise global gross domestic product by more than 20%. This is essentially doubling the global growth rate over the next decade. But reforms have slowed to a crawl. WBL 2024 identifies what governments can do to accelerate progress toward gender equality in business and the law,” said Indermit Gill, Chief Economist of the World Bank Group and Senior Vice President for Development Economics.

The implementation gap

The implementation gap highlights how much hard work lies ahead even for countries that have been instituting equal-opportunity laws. Togo, for example, has been a standout among Sub-Saharan economies. It has enacted laws that give women roughly 77% of the rights available to men. This is more than any other country in the continent. Yet Togo, so far, has established only 27% of systems necessary for full implementation. This rate is average for Sub-Saharan economies.

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In 2023, governments were assertive in advancing three categories of legal equal-opportunity reforms. These cover pay, parental rights, and workplace protections. Still, nearly all countries performed poorly in two categories tracked for the first time, access to childcare and women’s safety.

The weakness is greatest in women’s safety. The global average score is just 36. This means women enjoy barely a third of the needed legal protections against domestic violence, sexual harassment, child marriage and femicide. 151 economies have laws in place prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. But just 39 have laws prohibiting it in public spaces. This often prevents women from using public transportation to get to work.

Childcare rights gap

Most countries also score poorly for childcare laws. Women spend an average of 2.4 more hours a day on unpaid care work than men. Much of this time covers the care of children. Expanding access to childcare tends to increase women’s participation in the labour force by about 1 percentage point initially. The effect more than doubles within five years. Today, only 78 economies—fewer than half—provide some financial or tax support for parents with young children. Only 62 economies—fewer than a third—have quality standards governing childcare services. Without this, women might think twice about going to work while they have children in their care.

Entrepreneurship, retirement rights gaps

Women also face significant obstacles in other areas. In entrepreneurship, for example, just one in every five economies mandates gender-sensitive criteria for public procurement processes. This means women are largely cut out of a $10trn-a-year economic opportunity. In the area of pay, women earn just 77 cents for every $1 paid to men. The rights gap extends all the way to retirement. In 62 economies, the ages at which men and women can retire are not the same. Women tend to live longer than men. But because they receive lower pay while they work, take time off when they have children, and retire earlier, they end up with smaller pension benefits and greater financial insecurity in old age.

“It is more urgent than ever to accelerate efforts to reform laws and enact public policies that empower women to work and start and grow businesses,” said Tea Trumbic, the report’s lead author. “Today, barely half of women participate in the global workforce, compared with nearly three out of every four men. This is not just unfair—it’s wasteful. Increasing women’s economic participation is the key to amplifying their voices and shaping decisions that affect them directly. Countries simply cannot afford to sideline half of their population.”