Do gendered laws matter for women’s economic empowerment?

Marie Hyland (World Bank), Simeon Djankov (PIIE) and Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg (PIIE)
Working Paper
March 2021
Photo Credit: 
REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui


Greater legal equality between men and women is associated with a narrower gender gap in opportunities and outcomes, fewer female workers in positions of vulnerable employment, and greater political representation for women. While legal equality is on average associated with better outcomes for women, the experience of individual countries may differ significantly from this average trend, depending on the countries’ stage of development (as proxied by per capita GDP). Case studies from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and Spain demonstrate this deviation. Especially in developing countries, legislative measures may not necessarily translate into actual empowerment, due mainly to deeply entrenched social norms, which render legal reforms ineffective. Women are more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment in low- and lower-middle-income economies but less likely than men to be in vulnerable employment in upper-middle- and high-income economies. Analysis of a 50-year panel of gendered laws in 190 countries reveals that country attributes that do not vary or change only slowly over time—such as a country’s legal origin, form of government, geographic characteristics, and dominant religion—explain a very large portion of the variation across countries. This finding suggests that the path to legal equality between men and women may be a long and arduous one. Nevertheless, the data also show that the past five decades have seen considerable progress toward legal gender equality. Gendered laws do evolve, suggesting a role for legal reforms in women’s economic empowerment.