Sexism, Sexism Everywhere

Governments across the world have sexist laws that hurt women. Hell, even some regulations that seem to help women turn out to be sexist because of their consequences.

The World Bank recently released their biennial Women, Business and the Law report. It highlights much sexism, but also praises some measures that are actually sexist if seen from an economist’s lens.

The report starts with an interesting anecdote:

Now consider the case of Svetlana Medvedeva, who studied navigation in college and graduated as a navigation officer in the Russian Federation. She applied to work as a ship’s helmsman and was selected. Later she was told she could not have that job as Regulation No. 162 lists ‘helmsman’ as one of the 456 jobs deemed too arduous, harmful or dangerous for women.

Medvedeva went to court but after five long years, nothing happened, and the ban still remains in place. Across the world, such regulations hampering gender equality still exist. According to the report, 104 countries have laws which prevent women from working in specific jobs, and 18 countries have laws which allow husbands to legally prevent their wives from working. Meanwhile, in 59 countries there are no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace.

For the first time, the report also provides scores for each country based its performance on seven indicators: accessing institutions, using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, going to court, building credit and protecting women from violence. The scores range from 0 to 100 with 100 being the best. Unsurprisingly, the OECD high-income countries (think UK, New Zealand, Spain) perform the best on these parameters. The worst performers are mostly from the Middle East and North Africa. According to the report, “Twenty-one economies from across 5 regions receive a score of 0 in the protecting women from violence indicator. In the Middle East and North Africa, 35% of the economies score 0 in this indicator, as do 19% of economies in Sub- Saharan Africa.”

The report brings to light the shocking practices followed by countries in which women are treated as second-rate citizens. In Equatorial Guinea a woman needs her husband’s permission to sign a contract. In Chad, Guinea-Bissau and Niger, married women cannot open bank accounts without their husbands’ permissions. Fortunately, in Iran, women now have the luxury of not bringing along a guardian while applying for passports.

Restrictions on jobs

Laws that were made for a different century still apply in many places. These legacy legislations largely reflect outdated standards of safety. The report states:

Restrictions on women’s work in mining in many Commonwealth economies, for example, can be traced back to the United Kingdom’s Mines and Collieries Act of 1842. Currently, almost half of Commonwealth economies place limits on the jobs women can do.

Though conditions have improved for both men and women over time, many gender-based restrictions remain. Industry restrictions, such as those on mining, are particularly common. Sixty-five economies restrict women from working in mining. Women also face job restrictions in industries such as manufacturing (47 economies), construction (37 economies), energy (29 economies), agriculture (27 economies), water (26 economies) and transportation (21 economies).

And to top it all, in 29 of the 189 economies covered, women cannot work the same night hours as men.

You might ask, if certain jobs/working hours are really risky, isn’t it better to stop bad things from happening to people? While that argument sounds good, unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. There is risk in almost every activity that we do. There is some possibility that you might die in a car accident, or while crossing the road. You might get food poisoning when you decide to eat some delicious street food. But people consume street food anyway. Cars are driven every day and roads are crossed too, because we calculate probabilities of a bad event happening and decide that it’s worth taking the risk.

People who decide to work in a mine do it not out for the thrill of it, but because of their desperation for a job. If people are allowed to do risky activities like skydiving for fun, then what right does the government have to prevent honest, hardworking women (and indeed people) from looking for a way to earn a living? Especially for poor women, by banning them from working in “dangerous industries” or “at night”, governments take away the only asset that they have – their labour.

The Seen and the Unseen

Not all policies that the report classifies as good for women are actually good. For example, in 2017, India increased the duration of paid maternity leave available for women employees from the existing 12 weeks to 26 weeks (Maternity Benefit (Amendment ) Act, 2017). According to the World Bank, this is a good move and it increases the points scored by India in the index. But since the design of this regulation is such that the cost of maternity benefits is borne completely by the employer, it actively harms women, because employers are disincentivized from hiring more women of childbearing age.

Research on the impact of a Spanish law that allowed women with children under the age of seven to ask their employers for more flexible working hours without a threat of layoff showed that employers were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared to men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to fire them. Similarly for India, a study by TeamLease recently estimated that there will be 11-18 lakh jobs lost for women in FY 18-19 due to the increase in mandated maternity benefits.

Technically, the government could pay all the maternity benefits to companies, and effectively make the cost of maternal benefits to the company equal to zero. But if an estimated 81% of working women in India are in the informal sector, any expenditure on social protection should probably be directed to the poor rather than the well-off persons in formal sector jobs.

It’s time for sexist governments to repeal laws that discriminate against women. Allowing women to work in industries of their choice and at hours of their choice will empower them to earn additional income. Removing regulations that make it costly to hire women will improve women’s employment prospects. A rise in incomes of women is accompanied by a host of other benefits. Economies will grow faster as a valuable resource is freed up to do productive work, earning women everywhere will have better bargaining power within the household, and parents will be willing to invest more in the education of a girl child when they see an increase in the return to education.

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About the author

Aditya Jahagirdar

Aditya Jahagirdar is a development economics and public policy enthusiast. He is a Bengaluru boy who likes sambhar more than chutney and vada more than idli. He tweets @jahagirdar_adi