Studies warn of slow progress in achieving gender equality

IMF chief says global recession hit women harder than men, and women haven't recovered from setback

Afghan women sort thread for carpets at a carpet factory in Herat, Afghanistan in 2012.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Progress toward achieving gender equality around the globe has stalled in recent years, with women still holding fewer salaried jobs than men and receiving lower wages for their work, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in a study Monday.

Under its first female chief, Christine Lagarde, the IMF has renewed its push to strengthen the role of women in the economy, arguing it can raise growth prospects and improve development.

Just having as many women in the labor force as men could boost economic growth by 5 percent in the United States, 9 percent in Japan and 34 percent in Egypt, the IMF said.

In its study, the Fund said women have made gains in certain countries, but still face discrimination and tax and labor policies that discourage them from working.

Around the world, half of women participate in the labor force, but that number falls to just a fifth in places like the Middle East and North Africa.

Findings from a separate study on women in the economy published by The World Bank on Tuesday echoed the results of the IMF study.

The World Bank report showed that 90 percent of countries treat women differently under the law in at least one way.  Twenty-eight countries, mostly in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, have 10 or more legal differences between men and women on their books.

In some countries, women must still gain husbands’ permission to work. In others, women are restricted from doing certain kinds of work.

The United States and other Western countries get high marks for treating women more equally, but the World Bank report notes that every country could do more to foster women’s’ involvement in the economy

The IMF and World Bank studies both found that while women have gained essential rights over the past few decades, the progress of women may be stagnating.

The gap between men and women in the labor force has narrowed since 1990, and women now account for 40 percent of the global pool of labor. But in Japan, for example, 25 percent fewer women participate in the labor force than men.

Lagarde said it has been difficult to sustain momentum after the great progress on gender equality since the 1950s.

"There's an element of maybe fatigue, maybe déjà vu, maybe we should go back to business because we've made so much progress," she said in an interview. "And yet it's really ... a cause that needs constant attention, resilience, and continued momentum."

The global recession has also complicated the problem. In advanced economies, fewer women than men lost their jobs in the first years of the crisis, from 2007 to 2009, as job losses were concentrated in male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction. But from 2011 to 2012, women continued to lose jobs while the unemployment rate for men stabilized or fell.

In developing countries, the economic crisis affected women disproportionately. In Mexico and Honduras, women accounted for 70 percent of all lay-offs.

Across advanced economies, women also continue to be paid 16 percent less than men, even in the same occupations, and are less represented in senior positions and among entrepreneurs.

To encourage more women to seek paid work, the IMF said countries should amend laws that tax family income instead of individual income -- such as France, Portugal and the U.S. -- to avoid forcing married couples to pay higher taxes if they both have jobs outside the home.

The IMF also urged countries to implement paid parental leave, including for fathers; improve access to affordable child care; and, in developing countries, improve women's access to education and infrastructure.

'Lean In' debate

Countries such as the U.S. have long debated policies to address the "glass ceiling," or discrimination against women blamed for the dearth of female top executives.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg earlier this year sparked a fierce debate with the publication of her book "Lean In," which argues women should also do more themselves to succeed in the boardroom and command respect.

Lagarde, who wrote the foreword to the French translation of "Lean In," said she believes progress on gender equality must involve both societal changes to address discrimination, and individual responsibility.

Lagarde broke through several "glass ceilings" throughout her career. She was the first female chair of the law firm Baker & McKenzie and was the first female finance minister in the Group of Eight advanced economies.

While discrimination plays a role in limiting career options, women themselves are also less likely to argue for higher salaries or bigger bonuses in performance reviews, Lagarde said.

"Everyone is accountable to push obstacles and to remove barriers, even if those barriers are sometimes within ourselves," said Lagarde, a former member of the French national synchronized swimming team.

"I was brought up with a coach that always told us, when the going gets tough, grit your teeth, smile and get on with it," she said. "It's a little bit of the 'lean in' approach to life."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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