Newspaper and magazine articles suggesting that governments and global business leaders are becoming appreciative of women’s roles in the workforce have proliferated recently, but a new World Bank study paints a much more complex picture. The global study reviews legal rights affecting work in 187 countries, encompassing cultures with extremely diverse gender views.

When it comes to gender parity and equal opportunity in the workplace around the world, women receive only 75% of the legal rights of men, according to Women, Business and the Law 2019. And that’s just the global average. For example, women in France, Denmark and Sweden have 100% of the same workplace rights as men—three of only six countries at that end of the spectrum. The study also found a number of other cultures in which women have less than 50% of the workplace rights of their male counterparts.

From the perspective of business success, study after study has concluded that diversity translates into better performance, making a strong case for gender diversity in the workplace. Several recent organizational and legislative initiatives have introduced strategies to facilitate financial and entrepreneurial empowerment for women around the world, and numerous regions are taking steps to reform old laws to improve rights and move toward equal economic inclusion for women.

But reforming the legal barriers that continue to hold women – and national economies – back is an extremely challenging task due to the structural, legal, and cultural constraints of many countries. And, as important as reforms and financial incentives are, genuine inclusion is required to realize the robust return on investments in women in the global workforce.

Cultural and Regional Restrictions Prevent Gender Diversity in the Workplace

Women’s inclusion in the global economy is closely tied to the cultural web of values, rights, and laws that differ around the world. In fact, most countries have laws and policies that make it harder for women to work. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Workplace Equality Index:

· Over 100 countries restrict the kinds of jobs women can have,

· 59 countries lack legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace,

· 18 countries require women to get their husbands’ permission prior to working outside the home, and

· Many countries restrict a woman’s ability to obtain a passport or national ID card.

Because of legal constraints like these, an estimated 70% of women-owned small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries are either unserved or underserved by financial institutions, says the International Finance Corporation. This has led to an estimated $260-320 billion per year gap in financing for women compared to men. Given these constraints that prevent a woman’s access to capital and impede the ability to thrive as entrepreneurs and business leaders, only 30% of SMEs around the world are owned and run by women.

These cultural implications impact the economy, too. According to the World Bank study, economies with reformed gender rights laws tend to perform better than non-reformers. They also have more women working overall, since reform makes it more encouraging for women to work. And the benefits are staggering: If women were to participate in the labor force at the same rate that men do – with the same levels of employment and same number of hours – individual economies could grow dramatically. By 2025, the US economy could grow by 19%, Mexico by 43%, India by 60%, and Iran by 75%.

Making Strides to Increase Gender Diversity Around the World

Despite the clear economic benefits of including women in the workforce, reform is easier said than done. Cultural, legal, and structural barriers make it extremely difficult to reform gender rights laws in many countries where male-oriented culture is engrained.

Still, the World Bank study marks great progress towards legal gender equality of opportunity since 2009. Nearly 275 reforms to laws and regulations in 131 different economies have been made to improve gender rights in a number of different ways, like introducing sexual harassment laws and removing restrictions on certain job types.

Other recent initiatives are taking an international focus to bring women into the economy. The US, for example, passed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment (WEEE) Act early 2019, which aims to strengthen US efforts to promote opportunity for female entrepreneurs around the world. Other organizational initiatives like The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) and G7’s 2X Challenge are championing equal workplace opportunity by raising money to support women’s access to capital around the world.

Yet, as a recent article from CNN points out, female entrepreneurs and business leaders need more than just access to capital. To ensure the full development of half the global talent pool, new laws and initiatives must be authentically implemented for women to be genuinely included and therefore live up to their full economic potential.

How Can Businesses Help Promote Gender Diversity and Inclusion?

Just as when working across multiple cultures, the myriad of different values and norms around the world means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to bridging gender gaps. Regulatory reform and financial incentives are crucial, especially considering gender-specific constraints that impede a woman’s economic inclusion. But businesses also play a major role in shaping the attitudes necessary to drive change.

According to the World Bank, coordinated efforts between businesses, organizations, or even governments can inspire reform. In 2015, for instance, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development partnered with a public transportation company in Kazakhstan to help women obtain bus driving licenses. Since the change, in addition to the inclusion of female bus drivers, the company has seen an increase in the proportion of female management and more recruitment of women into previously all-male teams.

On a smaller scale, investing in diversity training is a surefire way for businesses to learn how to pay close attention to the ways in which unconscious bias can impact hiring, promotions, and development of female leaders. McKinsey & Company’s The Power of Parity report found that women’s capabilities and ambitions are just as strong as men, but they’re 15% less likely to believe they’ll succeed. When companies aim to authentically correct biases through diversity training and developing a genuine inclusion strategy, women are more likely to succeed, boosting their business and the economy as a whole.

The lack of gender parity in the workforce is a highly complex global issue, tied closely to regional and cultural differences. Financial inclusion for women requires careful consideration of legal and cultural barriers, but the business case for equal opportunity is too strong to deny. When women are free to live up to their economic potential, we can unlock the profound potential of the global economy, too.