The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Only 6 countries give women the same work rights as men. The U.S. isn’t one of them.

Attendees cheer during the Women's March on Jan. 20, 2018, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A decade ago, no country in the world treated men and women equally under the law, according to a gender equality index from the World Bank. Today, only six countries do — and the United States isn’t one of them.

A new index released this week by the World Bank analyzes how each country’s laws affect women at every stage in their working lives — from applying for a job to having a child to receiving a pension — and the extent to which legal gender equality has progressed over time.

The study shows that over the past 10 years, the majority of the world moved closer to gender equality under the law, raising the global average score from 70.06 to 74.71 today.

By the index’s measures, six countries now have laws that protect men and women equally: Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden.

The United States, meanwhile, is far from the leading pack. Its 2018 score came in at 83.75, a score that has stayed flat for the past 10 years. The U.S. tied with Malawi, Kenya and The Bahamas. More than 60 other countries had better scores.

The study, titled “Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform,” calculated each country’s score using 35 different indicators, focusing on laws that affect women’s ability to live and work freely. Each of the data points were divided into eight categories: Going places, starting a job, getting paid, getting married, having children, running a business, managing assets and getting a pension.

For each of the countries, the study would ask questions such as: Can a woman apply for a passport in the same way as a man? Can a woman legally pursue the same professions as a man? Can a woman legally sign a contract in the same way as a man? Can a woman legally be “head of household” in the same way as a man?

The study’s authors then generated an unweighed average of all eight indicator scores on a scale of 0 to 100.

The United States received a perfect 100 in all but three categories. It earned a 75 in the category for equal pay for work of equal value, underscoring the fact that despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the gender pay gap in the U.S. has persisted: In 2017, women earned 82 percent of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

The study’s authors also gave the U.S. a score of 75 in the pension category, noting that the country’s laws do not “establish explicit pension credits for periods of childcare.” Yet the U.S.'s lowest score by far was in the “having children” category. Unlike many countries around the globe, the U.S. does not guarantee 14 weeks of paid leave for women, a threshold established by the International Labor Organization. The government does not pay 100 percent of maternity leave or parental leave benefits, nor does it offer paid paternity or parental leave.

Where the United States has lacked, other countries have stepped up, according to the World Bank index. In the past decade, thirteen economies, including Belgium, South Africa, Liberia, Bolivia, Serbia and Vietnam, introduced laws mandating equal pay for equal work. Sixteen economies increased paid maternity leave to meet the 14-week minimum. Nine countries, including Australia,, France and the United Kingdom, all introduced paid leave for either parent to take care of a child.

Over the past ten years, the region that improved the most on average was South Asia, followed by the East Asia and the Pacific and the sub-Saharan Africa region. The Middle East and North Africa improved the least, earning an average regional score of 47.37, meaning women there are given less than half the legal rights of men.

Among the economies that saw the most improvement in their scores, many introduced laws protecting against sexual harassment, discrimination in access to credit and restrictions on certain jobs, such as night shifts. Worldwide, a total of 35 economies passed laws on workplace sexual harassment.

Still, more than 56 economies across all regions implemented no laws improving gender equality over the past ten years. These countries, the World Bank study authors argue, are missing out on massive economic opportunities: The World Bank’s data shows that when countries pass laws giving women and men equal protection, more women join the workforce.

“Ultimately, the data shows us that laws can be tools that empower women rather than that hold us back from achieving our potential,” Kristalina Georgieva, interim president of the World Bank Group, wrote in the study.