In June, Saudi Arabia will make it legal for women to drive, marking the end of one of the world’s most conspicuous examples of gender discrimination. The ban’s removal has been rightly hailed as a victory in a country that systematically limits women’s freedoms. But for Saudi officials, this policy reversal has more to do with economics than concern for women’s rights. In recent years, even culturally conservative countries such as the Gulf kingdom have begun to recognize that they cannot get ahead if they leave half of their human capital behind.
Women’s advocates have long championed gender parity as a moral issue. But in the modern global economy, eliminating obstacles to women’s economic participation is also a strategic imperative. A growing body of evidence confirms the positive relationship between women’s participation in the labor force and overall growth. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that a more gender-balanced economy could boost GDP by an estimated 12 percent in OECD countries. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has made similar predictions for non-OECD countries, projecting that greater female economic participation would bring GDP gains of about 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates and 34 percent in Egypt. All told, according to a 2015 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, closing gender gaps in the workplace could add an estimated $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.
Yet legal barriers to female economic enfranchisement persist in every region of the world, in both developed and developing economies. According to the World Bank, women face gender-based job restrictions in 155 countries, including limitations on property ownership, spousal consent requirements for employment, and laws that prevent them from signing contracts or accessing credit. In many nations, women are still barred from traditionally male jobs or face limits on the number of hours they can work. In Russia, women cannot seek employment in 456 specific occupations, from woodworking to driving a subway. Argentina prohibits women from entering “dangerous” careers, such as
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