Chapter 2. Gender Inequality around the World

Kalpana Kochhar, Sonali Jain-Chandra, and Monique Newiak
Published Date:
February 2017
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Sonali Jain-Chandra, Kalpana Kochhar, Monique Newiak, Tlek Zeinullayev and Lusha Zhuang 

There have been tremendous advances in the elimination of gender inequities around the world, but various challenges remain. Female labor force participation has been rising in many regions; female literacy has been increasing, rapidly in some places; gender gaps in education have been shrinking worldwide; and the number of women in elected office is up in many countries. Despite these notable advances, gender disparities most certainly persist—and not only as a local phenomenon or in only particular regions of the world. The precise nature of gender gaps varies, but in the majority of countries there are differences between men and women in decision-making power, economic participation, access to opportunities, and social norms and expectations.

Women’s Access to Opportunities

Gender gaps in access to education, health care services, legal rights, financial services, and political power constrain the economic opportunities open to women.

Gaps in education have been shrinking, but challenges remain, particularly in low-income and developing economies (Figure 2.1). Over the past century, the gender gap in education has been steadily shrinking across all regions and all levels of education. In particular, the gap in primary education is almost closed: the ratio of female to male primary school enrollment is now at 93 percent, even in the least developed countries.1 In secondary education, female to male enrollment averages 98 percent in middle-income countries. In advanced and emerging market economies, the gender gap in education is virtually closed, and women are now more likely than men to be enrolled in postsecondary education.

Figure 2.1.Gender Gaps in Education

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

Note: AFR = Africa; AP = Asia and Pacific; EUR = Europe; MC = Middle East and central Asia; WH = western hemisphere.

12014 data or latest available.

Nevertheless, women still trail men when it comes to literacy, especially in south Asia, the Middle East, and north Africa. The gender gap in education also varies across income groups. In low-income countries, only nine girls are enrolled in secondary education for every 10 boys. Only eight girls are in secondary education for every 10 boys in fragile or conflict-affected countries. Such inequality develops early in life, which makes it particularly profound and conducive to a so-called sticky floor—that is, the inability to advance economically later on.

Disparities in education compound throughout a woman’s life and leave her unable to break out of the vicious circle of meager opportunities and unfavorable economic outcomes.

Health indicators have improved globally, but maternal death and adolescent fertility rates remain high in some countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 2.2). The risk of maternal death has declined in all regions over the past two decades, particularly in south Asia: the lifetime risk of maternal death fell from 2.5 percent in the 1990s to 0.5 percent in 2013. The risk has also decreased a great deal in sub-Saharan Africa (3.5 percentage points), but it was still high at 2.6 percent in 2013. Similarly, death ratios for women in live childbirth remained high in south Asia (almost two in 1,000) and in sub-Saharan Africa (more than five in 1,000) in 2015. In addition to depicting inequity in health outcomes between men and women, these maternal mortality rates measure development more broadly.

Figure 2.2.Indicators of Women’s Health

Sources: Solt 2016; World Bank, World Development Indicators database.

Note: AFR = Africa; AP = Asia and Pacific; EUR = Europe; MC = Middle East and central Asia; WH = western hemisphere.

Similarly, adolescent fertility rates—the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19—have declined in all regions; they are highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Adolescent fertility is a broad indicator of health, and when the rate declines, opportunities for girls open up because early motherhood is often associated with higher school dropout rates, and limited employment opportunities later on.

Access to formal financial services is generally lower for women than for men (Figure 2.3). Over time, access to financial services has increased worldwide, but it remains fragmented across gender lines. Both saving and borrowing services are more accessible to men than to women. The gap is particularly large in south Asia, where only 37 percent of women have an account at a financial institution versus 54 percent of men, and in the Middle East and north Africa, where men are twice as likely as women to have an account (Demirgüç-Kunt and others 2015). In three regions, the gender gap in financial access actually increased between 2011 and 2014 (the Middle East and north Africa, south Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa). More access to financial services would enhance women’s income-generating ability and increase their power within the household. And with a safe place to store money, they would be less vulnerable to theft and more able to save and invest in education and businesses.

Figure 2.3.Women’s Access to Finance

Source: World Bank, Global Findex database.

Gender-based legal restrictions are prevalent in a number of countries (Figure 2.4). Despite progress, the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law database points to at least one such restriction in almost 90 percent of the reporting economies (World Bank 2015). Some countries have numerous legal restrictions: in about 28 countries, there are 10 or more restrictions on women’s participation. The nature of these restrictions varies. In 79 countries, there are laws that restrict women’s participation in specific professions. Other restrictions impede women’s property rights and thereby their access to finance. Gender-based restrictions are numerous in particular in the Middle East and north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and south Asia. Such restrictions can significantly impede economic activity by women, as is discussed in Chapter 12.

Figure 2.4.Legal Empowerment

Source: World Bank, Women, Business and the Law database.

An Index of Gender Inequality

A new index of gender inequality, developed for this chapter, seeks to gauge which regions and individual countries perform best on several dimensions of increasing opportunities for women (Box 2.1).

The index offers the following main takeaways:

  • The first panel of Figure 2.5 highlights the range of country outcomes in the areas of education, legal empowerment, financial access, and health and survival included in the index: opportunities for women are lower the farther to the right a country appears on the chart.

  • The second panel of Figure 2.5 highlights the index’s regional aggregates for the two available cross sections. According to the index, Europe appears to be the most gender-equal region, and it has made further progress over the past couple of years. Asia and the Pacific and the western hemisphere follow. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have the most gender inequalities when it comes to opportunity.

  • Figure 2.6 highlights differences across regions on the overall index and the considerable variation in performance even within regions. In particular, the Middle East and central Asia region are highly diverse. Countries of the former Soviet Union rank high in terms of opportunity, and countries from the Arab world are lagging behind.

Figure 2.5.Four Measures of Gender Inequality

Source: IMF staff estimates.

Notes: 0 = equality, 1 = inequality. AFR = Africa; AP = Asia and Pacific; EUR = Europe; MC = Middle East and central Asia; WH = western hemisphere.

Figure 2.6.Gender Inequality Index, 2011–14

Box 2.1.An Index of Opportunities for Women

A large number of gender-related indices focus on specific dimensions of gender inequality. Among them are the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Index, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Social Institution and Gender Index, the World Bank’s Country Policy and Institutional Assessments Gender Equality Rating, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (see Stotsky and others 2016 for a comprehensive overview). Most indices have focused on specific elements of gender inequality, such as gaps in education, health, labor force participation, or political representation.

These indices usually combine outcome- and opportunity-related measures of gender inequality, which can give a good overall picture of gender inequality across countries. However, using a combination of outcomes and opportunities makes it difficult to distinguish between inequality that results from women’s preferences and inequality that results from an uneven playing field. For example, as many studies rightly point out, women’s homemaking and childcare activities, while not included as part of GDP, increase overall welfare in the economy. Sometimes a woman may not join the labor market because of an intrinsic preference for these activities rather than as a result of policies or legal restrictions that restrict her opportunities.

This chapter therefore introduces an index of opportunities. It adds to previous dimensions of gender inequality by incorporating dimensions of opportunity into a new index, on top of education and health indicators captured, for example, by the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index, which already incorporates the dimensions of educational and political empowerment as well as health:

  • Equality of legal rights is captured by a comprehensive data set of legal restrictions (World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law database), which includes a broad range of economic opportunities for a large number of countries reaching back to 1960.

  • The second new dimension is gender gaps in financial inclusion, captured by the Findex database (Demirgüç-Kunt and others 2015) which includes disparity in financial access across demographic groups for two large cross sections (see Annex 2.1 for data sources and methodology). This data set covers more than 140 countries, representing more than 97 percent of the world’s population, and gives an overview of how easily people around the world save, borrow, and access financial institutions.

The highest possible score for our index is zero, which indicates that men and women fare equally, and the lowest score is 1, which denotes absolute inequality between them. Each of the four pillars is also bound between zero (equality) and 1 (inequality), which is useful for comparison with an ideal standard of equality. We attach equal weight across categories and indicators, which is a sign of very little redundancy across subgroups and similar importance in explaining variations in the index. Aggregating across four dimensions using geometric and harmonic means, we compute the actual level of inequality. Then we subtract that value from 1, which represents gender parity across all dimensions.

Countries with a lower gender inequality index tend to have more female participation in ownership (Figure 2.7). The index of opportunities is also strongly correlated with a number of development outcomes.

Figure 2.7.Relationship between Gender Inequality and Development

Sources: U.N. Human Development Index; and IMF staff estimates.

Note: HIC = high-income country; LIC = low-income country; MIC = middle-income country; PPP = purchasing power parity.

  • Lower gender inequality is associated with higher GDP per capita in countries at all levels of development, with the strongest relationship in middle-income countries.

  • Countries with higher infant mortality exhibit higher gender inequality, especially low-income countries.

  • Lower gender inequality in opportunity goes hand in hand with greater happiness in countries at all income levels.2

  • Higher gender inequality is related to lower human development, particularly in low-income countries.3

  • Less developed countries with higher gender inequality tend to have higher headcount ratios (the proportion of the population that lives below the poverty line).

Gender Inequality in Economic Outcomes

Labor market outcomes are far from equal across countries, and trends in labor force participation vary significantly. In the past three decades, an increasing number of economic opportunities has attracted more women into the labor force in countries at all income levels and across all regions, except in the Middle East and south Asia. Women now represent 40 percent of the global labor force (World Bank 2011), but their labor force participation has hovered around 50 percent over the past two decades. The average rate masks significant cross-regional differences in levels and trends. In 2014, female labor force participation varied from a low of 22 percent in the Middle East and north Africa to more than 61 percent in east Asia and the Pacific and almost 64 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a strong increase in female labor force participation of some 13 percentage points over the past two decades, but rates have been declining in south Asia. In Europe and central Asia, the rate has stayed broadly constant.

Female labor force participation varies with income per capita, with evidence pointing toward a U-shaped relationship (Figure 2.8). At lower levels of income per capita, a high participation rate reflects the necessity to work in the absence of social protection programs. When household income is higher and there is more social protection, women can withdraw from the market in order to work in their households and care for children. At advanced-economy income levels, labor force participation rebounds as a result of better education, lower fertility, access to labor-saving household technology, and the availability of market-based household services (Duflo 2012; Tsani and others 2012; World Bank 2011). The U-shaped relationship has been found to remain stable over time and to hold when controlling for country characteristics.

Figure 2.8.Gender Gaps in the Labor Market

Source: OECD 2015.

Notes: AFR = Africa; AP = Asia and Pacific; EUR = Europe; MC = Middle East and central Asia; WH = western hemisphere. PPP = purchasing power parity.

The average gender participation gap—which is the difference between male and female labor force participation rates—has been declining since 1990, largely due to a worldwide fall in male labor force participation rates. The gender gap varies strongly by region, with the highest gap observed in the Middle East and north Africa (51 percentage points), followed by south Asia and Central America (above 35 percentage points), while the lowest levels are seen in OECD countries and in the Middle East and north Africa (about 12 percentage points).

Variations in the gender gap are significant even among OECD countries. For instance, the gender gap in the Japanese labor market stands at 25 percentage points, compared with just over 10 percentage points on average in the major advanced economies and only 6 percentage points in Sweden. Across the OECD, female employment is concentrated in the services sector, which accounts for 80 percent of employed women, compared with 60 percent for men. Within this sector, women fill a disproportionately high share of occupations in health and community services, followed by education (OECD 2012). An analysis by the International Labour Organization (2012) finds that women are overrepresented in sectors characterized by low status and low pay.

Box 2.2Fifty Years of Legal Rights for Women

The 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights database tracks changes in a woman’s right to access legal institutions and use property for 100 economies over a period of 50 years.1

Accessing Legal Institutions

Information compiled in this category of the database examines differences in the degree to which women and men have the right to interact with public authorities and the private sector. The information addresses questions in the following areas:

Women’s Status and CapacityAccess to the Judicial SystemConstitutional Rights
1. Can adult married women become a head of household or head of a family?

2. Can married women get a job or pursue a profession?

3. Can married women open a bank account?

4. Can married women sign a contract?
5. Can married women initiate legal proceedings without their husband’s permission?6. Is equality guaranteed?

7. Is there a nondiscrimination clause covering gender/sex?

8. Is customary law valid under the Constitution?

9. Is customary law invalid if it violates the nondiscrimination clause?

10. Is religious law valid under the Constitution?

11. Is religious law invalid if it violates the nondiscrimination clause?

Use of Property

Questions addressed in this category relate to women’s ability to own, manage, control, and inherit property.

Property OwnershipMarital RegimesInheritance
12. Do unmarried women have equal property rights concerning immovable property?

13. Do married women have equal property rights concerning immovable property?
14. What is the default marital property regime?2

15. Is joint titling of property the default case for married couples?
16. Do sons and daughters have equal inheritance regarding immovable property?

17. Do surviving spouses have equal inheritance regarding immovable property?
1 The database is available at Each of the examined property regimes confers a different degree of financial independence on women. In the full community property regime, all assets and income brought into a marriage as well as acquired during the marriage are treated as jointly owned. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the separation of marital property under which property acquired during or before marriage is not jointly owned. Community property regimes recognize the nonmonetary contributions of women. They allow women to acquire wealth and provide for greater financial security, and they determine how women can buy, sell, or use property as collateral.

There is a significant wage gap associated with gender, even for the same occupations and when controlling for relevant factors such as education. Across OECD countries, the average gender wage gap—the difference between male and female median wages divided by male median wages—is estimated at 16 percent (Figure 2.9). Occupational segregation and reduced working hours, in combination with differentials in work experience, explain about 30 percent of the wage gap on average. While narrower for young women, the wage gap increases steeply during childbearing and childrearing years, pointing to an additional “motherhood penalty,” estimated at 14 percent across OECD countries. Among emerging market economies, wage gaps vary considerably, but they are relatively high in China, Indonesia, and South Africa. Comparatively narrow wage gaps in the Middle East and north Africa are explained by the small share of women in wage employment, who are often more highly educated than their male colleagues. In several countries, earnings differences are even more significant when comparing women and men with higher educational attainment (OECD 2012).

Figure 2.9.Gender Wage Gap, 2013

(Percentage points)

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2015.


While gender inequities around the world have decreased tremendously, various challenges remain. Female labor force participation has been rising in many regions; there have been rapid increases in female literacy rates in many regions; and gender gaps in education have been shrinking worldwide and have closed in some regions. In the political sphere, the number of women in elected office has increased in many countries. But despite these notable advances, gender equality in opportunities and outcomes remains an elusive goal, and gender inequality persists not only as a local phenomenon but in various forms around the world. The precise nature of gender gaps varies, but in the majority of countries there are differences between men and women in decision-making power, economic participation, access to opportunities, and social norms and expectations.


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Annex 2.1. Constructing the Gindex

We constructed the Gindex using indicators of educational empowerment, health, legal empowerment, and financial access.

  • Educational empowerment is the difference in the percent of completion of secondary education by men and women. And the long-term view of a country’s ability to empower women is captured through the proportion of seats held by women in the national parliament.

  • Access to health care is captured through maternal mortality and the adolescent fertility rate, given its strong association with heightened health risks for mothers (see also the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index).

  • The legal empowerment of women in decision-making processes translates into better development outcomes. To analyze legal empowerment, we look at statutory impediments to women’s access to the judicial system, constitutional rights, land and property ownership, and disparity in inheritance law. In 100 countries, women face gender-based job restrictions, which is a call to urgent action.

  • Gender gaps in financial access are captured by the percent of women and men ages 15 and older who have an account at a financial institution.

The first two dimensions are captured by the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index, but the index has drawn criticism for not capturing legal empowerment. To this end, we augment the index with information from the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law database by using indicators from two dimensions that are also available back to 1960 in the World Bank’s 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights database (World Bank 2013): (1) accessing institutions, which captures the difference in legal treatment of women and men by public authorities and the private sector; and (2) using property, which identifies disparities in women’s ability to control, inherit, and manage property.

Each of these subtopics captures a number of questions, and we use a subset of those to construct the index. In particular, we include the average of 12 indicator questions listed in Box 2.2, with a few exceptions. Because of an insufficient number of observations, we do not include four questions relevant to constitutional rights (questions 8–11). We also drop the series on the default property regime (question 14). The subindex value ranges between zero (none of the measured legal rights present) and 1 (all measured rights present). Since our calculations involve a geometric mean we define a minimum value of 0.1 for all zero values.

The enrollment rate is the ratio of children within the official primary school age who are enrolled in primary school to the total population of that age.

The happiness index is extracted from the most recent World Happiness Report from 2015. The index measures subjective well-being, which encompasses cognitive evaluation of one’s life and positive and negative emotions.

Human development is measured by the United Nations’ Human Development Index—a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development such as a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and having a decent standard of living.

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