If you were to imagine a place where women have equal (or better) access in the economy than men, I’m sure your mind wouldn’t skip straight to the former Soviet Union. Of course, no country yet has gender parity in either opportunity or pay, but some economies are closer than you might think. In fact:
In Belarus, women are more economically active than men — by the biggest margin in the world.
To be specific, the labor-force participation rate — defined as people working, plus those looking for work as a proportion of the working-age population — is 86 percent for women, and just 79 percent for men, according to country-level survey data collated by the International Labour Organization for 2015, the most recent year with full data available. That’s a ratio of 108 to 100, the largest in the world by a huge margin, with only two other countries squeaking above 100. Everywhere else, men are more economically active than their female counterparts.
Belarus has one of the most female-heavy populations in the the world (54 percent, the sixth-highest proportion in the world), but bizarrely, that is not why they dominate men in the labor force. The number of working-age Belarusians is actually relatively balanced by sex — it’s into old age that women take over in aggregate, as only Russia has a greater gap between female and male life expectancy.
There may be a far more surprising factor at play. Countries ravaged by war and genocide place high on rankings of the proportions of working women …
According to the country’s government statistics website, more women have been in work than men for at least 15 years — although the site’s more up-to-date numbers (which haven’t been modeled by the ILO relative to other countries) suggest that in the past couple of years, men have started to catch up. “It’s expected” that women should be wage earners in Belarus, says Tatsiana Kulakevich, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Rutgers University who grew up in the country. “My mom worked, my grandma worked, most of my friends’ mothers and grandmothers all worked.”
The Soviet economic legacy also plays a role, says Elena Gapova, founding director of the Center for Gender Studies at the European Humanities University in Minsk, the capital city. “Since the 1930s,” she says, “women were drawn into the socialist economy,” which has long been heavily reliant on industry. The “paternalistic” government approach to the economy and the family also remains: Women in Belarus receive 18 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, followed by three years of unpaid leave during which their jobs must be saved. Meanwhile, government-sponsored child care is widespread. Such policies have helped Belarus rank fifth in the world for women’s economic participation and opportunity in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report.
But there may be a far more surprising factor at play than policy. Shockingly, countries ravaged by war, genocide and other mass-casualty events that have been the most devastating (relative to population) in the 20th century place high on rankings of the proportions of working women. This is often attributed to the fact that such atrocities tend to decimate male populations, leaving a disproportionate number of women to rebuild the economy in the short-term aftermath, as well as potentially precipitating longer-term cultural change.
Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, each of which saw at least 5 percent of its population slaughtered in war or genocide in the 20th century, are today all among the 10 countries with a labor force that’s more than 50 percent female. Belarus, for its part, lost a staggering 25 percent of its population in World War II, by far the greatest proportion of casualties of any country. “The fact that so many men — not only men, but mostly men — were killed in World War II was really important for my mother’s generation,” says Gapova.
However, it is important to note that these statistics do not imply that Belarus and other war-ravaged nations are gloriously equal feminist societies — far from it. Women take home on average barely three-quarters of the pay packets of men in Belarus, and women are underrepresented at the director level of organizations, even though 27 percent more women than men hold bachelor’s degrees, and more women than men are employed in white-collar professions. Domestic abuse is a widespread issue, says Gapova, and most women are still expected to fulfill the role of caregiver and homemaker in the family. After its genocide, Rwanda became one of the most highly studied countries in regards to gender roles. Although it’s commonly ranked as the world’s most gender-equal country, it’s widely held that women’s empowerment ends at the front door, while “feminism” remains a dirty word.
Furthermore, there is reason to take some of the Belarusian national statistics with a grain of salt. The country’s official unemployment rate is 0.5 percent, although external estimates have put the real figure at several times higher than that. Modeled estimates from the ILO differ greatly from the country’s own numbers when it comes to female participation in the labor force — though those models aren’t perfect either, as they’re extrapolated from other incomplete data sets. A spokesperson from the World Bank says that it hasn’t “yet undertaken our own analysis of the data” to resolve this discrepancy.
Another explanation? Kulakevich puts it down to necessity. With an average monthly wage of just $422, most Belarusian families cannot afford to support a nonworking parent. Or, as Gapova puts it, there’s traditionally no “bourgeois class” where women could afford to stay home. It might all come down to that Soviet legacy after all.
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