Women have faced enormous obstacles in their pursuit of opportunities to put themselves on an equal footing with men. Inequality between men and women was abundantly visible a quarter-century ago—in university courses, the workplace, and even in households. In many ways, the lives of women and girls throughout the world have improved considerably since then. Most people in most nations, wealthy and poor, go to school more, live longer, find better employment, and gain legal rights and protections.
However, significant gender disparities persist. Women and girls are more likely to die than men and boys in numerous low- and middle-income nations than in affluent countries. Almost everywhere, women earn less and are less economically productive than men. Women have fewer opportunities than males to control their lives and make decisions.
Closing gender disparities is essential for development and policymaking, according to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development. Greater gender equality can boost economic output, better development outcomes for future generations, and make institutions and policies more representative.
Why women’s role in the economy is critical
- Economic empowerment is critical to achieving women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s economic empowerment includes the ability of women to participate equally in existing markets, access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives, and bodies, and increased voice, agency, and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels, from the household to international institutions.
- Empowering women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the workplace is critical to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  and the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5, which promotes gender equality, and Goal 8, which supports full and productive employment and decent work for all; as well as Goal 1 on ending poverty and Goal 2 on food security.
Every aspect of gender equality—access to education and health, economic opportunities, and voice within households and society—has experienced a mixed pattern of change over the past quarter-century. In some areas, such as education, the gender gap has closed for almost all women; but progress has been slower for the poor and faces other disadvantages, such as ethnicity. In other areas, the opening has been slow to close—even among well-off women and countries that have otherwise developed rapidly.
The gender gap has closed in almost all countries in primary education, and it is shrinking quickly in secondary education. Indeed, girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools in nearly one-third of developing countries. There are more young women than men in universities in two-thirds of the countries for which there are data: women today represent 51 percent of the world’s university students (see Chart 1). Yet more than 35 million girls do not attend school in developing countries, compared with 31 million boys, and two-thirds of these girls are members of ethnic minorities.
Women have been living longer than males in all regions of the world since 1980. However, in all developing nations, women, and girls continue to die at a younger age than men and boys, compared to affluent ones. As a result of this “excess female mortality,” around 3.9 million girls and women under the age of 60 go “missing” in underdeveloped nations each year (see table). Two-fifths are never born, one-sixth die in infancy and more than one-third die within their reproductive years. Female mortality increases in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among women of reproductive age and in nations most impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
- Increasing women’s and girls’ educational attainment contributes to economic empowerment and more inclusive economic growth. Education, upskilling, and re-skilling over the life course – especially to keep pace with rapid technological and digital transformations affecting jobs—are critical for women’s and girls’ health and well-being and their income-generation opportunities and participation in participation in the formal labor market. Increased educational attainment accounts for about 50 percent of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years.[ But, for the majority of women, significant gains in education have not translated into better labor market outcomes.
- Women’s economic equality is good for business. Companies greatly benefit from increased employment and leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organizational effectiveness and growth. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organizational performance.
Gender equality and progress
Gender equality is vital in and of itself. Development is a process of increasing freedoms for all individuals, male and female (Sen, 2009). Closing the gender disparity in well-being is as important to development as lowering income poverty. Greater gender equality promotes economic efficiency and other development benefits. It accomplishes this in three significant ways:
- First, with women currently accounting for 40% of the global workforce and more than half of all university students, total production will rise if their abilities and talents are adequately used. For example, if women farmers had equal access to productive resources like land and fertilizers as males, agricultural productivity in developing nations might increase. Eliminating obstacles to women working in specific industries or occupations might boost production by increasing women’s involvement and labour productivity by up to 25% in some countries through better allocation of their skills and ability).
- Second, women’s increased control over household resources, whether through their earnings or monetary transfers, might improve countries’ economic prospects by shifting expenditure in favour of children. Evidence from Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom suggests that when women control more household money, whether, through their employment or monetary transfers, children benefit from increased expenditure on food and education (World Bank, 2011).
- lastly, it can make institutions more representative of a range of voices. In India, giving power to women at the local level led to the more excellent provision of public goods, such as water and sanitation, which mattered more to women (Beaman and others, 2011).
Gender disparities in legislation
Gender disparities in legislation influence both emerging and developed economies and women in all areas. Over 2.7 billion women worldwide are legally barred from having the same work options as males. Of the 189 economies reviewed in 2018, 104 still have laws prohibiting women from working in specified occupations, 59 have no laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, and husbands can legally restrict their wives from working in 18 economies.  Women continue to be less likely than males to engage in the world’s labor market. The labour force participation rate for women aged 25-54 is 63%, compared to 94% for males.  In 2018, when younger (aged 15 and up) and older (aged 55 and up) women are included,
To achieve gender equality, policymakers must prioritise the following actions: reducing the excess mortality of girls and women; eliminating remaining gender disadvantages in education; increasing women’s access to economic opportunity and thus earnings and productivity; providing women with an equal voice in households and societies; and limiting the transmission of gender inequality across generations.
To minimise the excess mortality of girls and women, attention must be paid to the underlying reasons at each age. Given girls’ increased sensitivity (compared to boys’) to waterborne infectious illnesses in infancy and early childhood, increasing water supply and sanitation, as Vietnam has done, is critical to lowering excess female mortality in this age range (World Bank, 2011) and improving access to health care for the underserved.
Broader access to antiretroviral medications and lowering the frequency of new infections must be prioritised in Sub-Saharan Africa’s worst afflicted areas by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. To offset sex-selective abortions, which result in fewer female births, particularly in China and northern India, the societal worth of girls must be increased, as Korea has done.
Barriers to access due to poverty, race, or location must be removed to close education inequalities in nations where they exist. More schools in remote locations, for example, can help to close the gender gap in areas where distance is a major issue (such as rural districts of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan). When tailored solutions are difficult to execute or too expensive, demand-side interventions, such as cash transfers tied to school attendance might be used. Such conditional financial transfers have been successful in raising females’ enrollment rates in nations ranging from Mexico to Turkey to Pakistan (World Bank, 2011)
A mix of measures is required to increase women’s access to economic opportunity, hence lowering the male-female inequality in incomes and economic production. Solutions include freeing up women’s time so they can work outside the home, such as through subsidised child care in Colombia; improving women’s credit access, such as in Bangladesh; and ensuring access to productive resources, particularly land, as in Ethiopia, where joint land titles are now granted to wives and husbands. Addressing a lack of knowledge on women’s productivity in the workplace and reducing institutional prejudices against women, such as instituting quotas that favour women or job placement programmes, as in Jordan, will also open up economic opportunities to women.