NOT long ago women faced tremendous barriers as they sought opportunities that would set them on an equal footing with men. Going back a mere quarter century, inequality between women and men was widely apparent—in university classrooms, in the workplace, and even in homes. Since then, the lives of women and girls around the world have improved dramatically in many respects. In most countries—rich and developing—they are going to school more, living longer, getting better jobs, and acquiring legal rights and protections.
But large gender gaps remain. Women and girls are more likely to die, relative to men and boys, in many low- and middle-income countries than their counterparts in rich countries. Women earn less and are less economically productive than men almost everywhere across the world. And women have less opportunity to shape their lives and make decisions than do men.
According to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development, closing these gender gaps matters for development and policymaking. Greater gender equality can enhance economic productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions and policies more representative.
Many gender disparities remain even as countries develop, which calls for sustained and focused public action. Corrective policies will yield substantial development payoffs if they focus on persistent gender inequalities that matter most for welfare. To be effective, these measures must target the root causes of inequality without ignoring the domestic political economy.
Every aspect of gender equality—access to education and health, economic opportunities, and voice within households and society—has experienced a mixed pattern of change over the past quarter century. In some areas, such as education, the gender gap has closed for almost all women; but progress has been slower for those who are poor and face other disadvantages, such as ethnicity. In other areas, the gap has been slow to close—even among well-off women and in countries that have otherwise developed rapidly.
In primary education, the gender gap has closed in almost all countries, and it is shrinking quickly in secondary education. Indeed, in almost one-third of developing countries, girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools. There are more young women than men in universities in two-thirds of the countries for which there are data: women today represent 51 percent of the world’s university students (see Chart 1). Yet more than 35 million girls do not attend school in developing countries, compared with 31 million boys, and two-thirds of these girls are members of ethnic minorities.
To broaden women’s access to economic opportunity, thereby reducing male-female disparity in earnings and economic productivity, a combination of policies is called for. Solutions include freeing up women’s time so they can work outside the home—for example, through subsidized child care, as in Colombia; improving women’s access to credit, as in Bangladesh; and ensuring access to productive resources—especially land—as in Ethiopia, where joint land titles are now granted to wives and husbands. Addressing lack of information about women’s productivity in the workplace and eliminating institutional biases against women, for example by introducing quotas that favor women or job placement programs as in Jordan, will also open up economic opportunity to women.