Countries in the CEE/CIS region typically outperform other countries in the same income brackets when it comes to gender equality in laws concerning the workplace, a World Bank report shows.
Disastrous demographics — a combination of natural decline and mass emigration — and tightening labour markets are likely to keep up the pressure on governments across the region to encourage women (and other groups such as early retirees and young people) to enter and remain in the workforce.
The report, Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform, examines ten years of data to reveal how women’s employment and entrepreneurship are affected by legal discrimination. It talks of how women must navigate discriminatory laws and regulations at every point in their careers, limiting their equality of opportunity.
The ranking is based on eight indicators that are structured around women’s interactions with the law as they begin, progress through and end their careers: Going Places, Starting a Job, Getting Paid, Getting Married, Having Children, Running a Business, Managing Assets and Getting a Pension.
“The data show there has been great progress towards legal gender equality over the past decade,” said World Bank Group interim president Kristalina Georgieva in the introduction to the report. During this period, the global average score rose by 4.65 points to 74.71 thanks to 274 reforms to laws and regulations increasing gender equality in 131 economies.
However, Georgieva adds, “the average global score is 74.71, indicating that a typical economy only gives women three-quarters the rights of men in the measured areas.”
Six economies — Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden — score 100, meaning that women are on equal legal standing with men across all eight indicators in these economies.
The majority of the 39 economies, which score 90 or above, are OECD high-income countries (26), and a further eight are lower income countries from Europe and Central Asia.
High scores for CEE/CIS economies
Looking at the data by income band shows that in both the upper middle income and lower middle income countries, those from the CEE/CIS region are disproportionately represented among the countries with the highest scores in that band.
Of the 49 countries in the upper middle income group, for example, seven CEE/CIS states are in the best performing 12 countries, and only three fall into the bottom half. Similarly, Kosovo tops the lower middle income countries ranking, and another four CEE/CIS countries are among the top 15 states from that region; only Uzbekistan falls into the lower half. And almost all of the CEE/CIS states in the high income category are in the top half in terms of their score on the index.
Latvia tops the CEE/CIS countries, followed by neighbouring Baltic state Estonia. But the other countries that perform well are more mixed. Serbia (not yet an EU member) follows with a score of 96.88, beating almost all the eastern members of the bloc.
Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland are not far behind, all on 93.75 — all three countries have to varying extents “illiberal” governments and have been enmeshed in controversies over policies concerning women and gender.
However, such politics generally don’t extend to the workplace — in line with the broader trend of a troubled “Planet Politics” combined with a well functioning “Planet Business” across much of the region. This is most likely to continue given the labour market squeeze in countries across Central and parts of Southeast Europe.
On the other hand, countries progressing towards EU accession had an extra impetus for reform. Three countries among the EU candidate countries from the Western Balkans — Albania, Montenegro and Serbia — were among those where laws mandating equal remuneration for work of equal value were introduced.
Of all the countries in the wider region, only two — Russia (73.13) and Uzbekistan (70.63) — fall below the global average (isolated Turkmenistan is not included in the report). Uzbekistan performs especially poorly in the Starting a Job, Getting Paid and Getting a Pension categories; Russia is worst when it comes to Getting Paid and Starting a Job.
Other countries with scores below 80 are all in the eastern part of the region: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.
Getting women to work
The survey confirms that reducing legal gender differences boosts women’s economic participation. "Many laws and regulations continue to prevent women from entering the workforce or starting a business; discrimination that can have lasting effects on women’s economic inclusion and labor force participation,” says the report. “Economies that failed to implement reforms towards gender equality over the past ten years, for example, saw a smaller increase in the percentage of women working overall and in the percentage of women working relative to men.”
In reforming economies, female labour force participation as a percentage of the total labour force went up by 0.70 percentage points, while for non-reforming economies, it only went up by 0.21 percentage points. In addition, the labour force participation rate of women relative to men went up by 2.05 percentage points for reforming economies, while for non-reforming economies it went up by 1.74 percentage points.
“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” said Georgieva in a statement. “Change is happening, but not fast enough, and 2.7bn women are still legally barred from having the same choice of jobs as men. It is paramount that we remove the barriers that hold women back, and with this report we aim to demonstrate that reforms are possible, and to accelerate change.”
Pensions at the forefront of reform
This is particularly important in economies that are experiencing a labour market tightening, as seen in Central Europe, plus Southeast European EU members like Romania.
The Getting a Pension category saw the most reforms in Europe and Central Asia. Of the 11 economies that reformed in this indicator, nine, all of them ex-communist countries — Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine — are currently equalising the ages at which men and women can retire with full pension benefits over time, says the report.
However, is typically a gradual process, as it has met with backlash in several countries. Last year the Russian government announced a controversial, long overdue, and widely unpopular pension reform that hikes the retirement ages for Russians from Soviet era lows. The original bill currently in the State Duma proposes hiking the retirement age for women to 63 and for men to 65 by 2034, from 55 and 60, respectively. The Ministry of Finance has said previously that he change is necessary as with Russia’s deteriorating demographics it is afraid of pension payments overwhelming the state finances in the coming years.
However, as the backlash against the planned reforms threatened President Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings, the president — who had kept his distance from the changes — eventually stepped in to scale them back. In a televised address to the nation, Putin cut back the retirement age increase for women by eight years from the current 55 to 63, scaling it back to 60 years. He also introduced a number of other compensatory measures that were immediately picked up by the cabinet and the parliament.
"Our country has a special, careful attitude towards women … we understand that they not only have work at their main place of employment, but also usually have the carry the household, care for the family, raise children, and worry about grandchildren,” Putin said in the address. “The retirement age for women should not increase more than for men.”
Kazakhstan faced similar problems overhauling its pension system a few years earlier. In a rare instance of mass public mobilisation in the authoritarian Central Asian state, opponents to the reforms, which included plans to bring the retirement age for women into line with that for men, gathered thousands of signatures against the changes. The country’s youthful labour and social protection minister, Serik Abdenov, became a national figure of fun after failing to explain the reforms at a public meeting, telling attendees: "You have to work and work... because, esteemed fellow countrymen, because, because…” Abdenov was eventually sacked as President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered the government to rethink the reforms.
There were also issues with reforms in other areas, notably sexual harassment in the workplace. Among the 35 countries that introduced sexual harassment laws protecting women at work were several from the CEE/CIS region. However, this was an area where the legislation was not backed up by criminal penalties. Five countries including Georgia and Moldova “introduced sexual harassment laws, but did not provide for either criminal penalties or civil remedies for the violation of these laws,” says the report. “In Georgia, for example, the 2010 Gender Equality Act defines sexual harassment and establishes that it is not allowed, but there is no criminal penalty for sexual harassment nor can a victim sue for a civil remedy.”
Sectors off limits
Restrictions on women working in certain sectors or jobs, usually those deemed physically demanding or dangerous, are a hangover from the communist era in several countries in the CEE/CIS region. During the survey period, a total of 22 countries removed restrictions on women’s work, reducing the likelihood that women are kept out of working in certain sectors of the economy.
Among them were Bulgaria, Croatia and Poland, which removed all job restrictions on women, while other countries removed restrictions on women working in specific industries, including the Czech Republic (mining), Mongolia (construction, energy, manufacturing, mining, transportation and water) and Slovenia (construction). “Several of these reforms were motivated by the improved use of technology in these industries,” says the report.
It singles out the example of bus drivers in Kazakhstan, a job previously barred to women, but where the situation has changed due to legislative reforms supported by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in partnership with the government and a public transport operator in Almaty. “Previously, women could not get bus driving licenses because a prerequisite was having a heavy goods license with one year of experience driving a heavy goods vehicle. But women were not legally allowed to drive heavy goods vehicles, and therefore could not also drive buses,” explains the report. “Coordinated efforts such as these have contributed to narrowing the legal gender gap over the last ten years.”