Slow progress on women’s rights across the world

Women enjoy three-quarters of the legal rights of men, study shows

A recent World Bank study by Marie Hyland and colleagues has looked at the experience of legal discrimination against women around the globe. In many countries, gender discrimination is still woven into the fabric of legal systems and social norms. Of course, even when women are treated equally before the law, actual outcomes may be different. Nonetheless, ensuring equality before the law is an essential first step in creating a fair and modern society.

In Ireland, the first half of the 20th century saw fitful progress on women's rights. Winning the partial right to vote in 1918, and full equal women's suffrage in 1922, was a major landmark. However, in some spheres things went backwards with independence. For example, the 1924 Civil Service Regulation Act obliged women civil servants to retire on marriage, a provision that was not repealed until mid-1973. When we married in 1972, my wife lost her permanent civil service job, while I, who was only a wet week in the Department of Finance, became due a pay rise as a married man.

Ireland's entry to the European Economic Community at the start of 1973 marked a step forward in women's labour market rights. The founding Treaty of Rome enshrined the principle of equal pay for equal work. So legislation on equal pay and on ending the marriage bar followed Ireland's accession.

Earning power

The mere enactment of legislation did not result in women’s pay equality. While the change in the law did help narrow the pay gap, successive research studies show a persistent significant pay gap remains in Ireland. Women can be clustered in lower-paid occupations. Interrupted careers for caring also mean differences in earning power, even with nominal equality.

The World Bank study shows that in legal terms, women continue to suffer substantial discrimination around the globe. Based on a measure of discrimination the researchers developed, they suggest that across the world today, women enjoy three-quarters of the legal rights of men. Unequal pay is among the most widespread practices across the globe, reflecting gender inequalities in very populous societies like China and India.

The legal framework in Eastern European communist countries of 40 years ago was more egalitarian towards women than it was in the West. However, as major improvements have taken place in the most advanced economies, the World Bank study now awards a legal equality score of 90 per cent to OECD countries.

Nevertheless, the legacy effects of the communist regime can still be seen in relatively poor countries in Central Asia, where women's rights are substantially protected in law. These countries also see equal access to education for women, a positive legacy of the old Soviet regime.

Not surprisingly, women suffer the biggest deficit in legal rights in the Middle East. The Taliban regime had an outright ban on women’s employment. Saudi women until very recently were banned from driving. The research suggests that cultural factors are at least as important as religious practice in explaining legal regimes. And where cultural practices are deeply patriarchal, changing the law may make only a marginal difference.


In recent years, the top reforming region in improving women's rights has been Sub-Saharan Africa, with the introduction of many reform measures between 2005-2008. One factor driving reform during this period was the African Union's adoption of the Maputo Protocol, which guarantees wide-ranging equal rights to women. International agencies have also played a role in promoting equality.

Legal reforms permitting women to work outside the home have been quite rapid in developing countries over the last couple of decades. This may reflect an economic driver during a time of rising demand for labour. In the 1920s and ‘30s in the US, demographic changes caused a labour market squeeze that contributed to the subsequent decline of “marriage bars” in employment. This process is now playing out across the developing world, as business seeks to raise female labour force participation.

However, the slowest pace of reform has been in the spheres of equal pay and access to pensions. Here, foot-dragging by the business sector is probably delaying progress. Business interests want skilled female labour, but they are much less keen on paying them their due.

Changing legal systems to outlaw gender discrimination is just a starting point. Changing what happens on the ground is a much bigger challenge. The UN Sustainable Development Goals emphasise the importance of equal access to education for girls in making a difference. Here in Ireland, rising educational attainment of women has played a significant part in progress towards a more gender-equal society.