An article by Ms. Tatiana Proskuryakova, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia, and Mr. William Seitz, World Bank Senior Economist, notes that globally, women earn about 80% of what men earn on average. But the gap is reportedly larger in Central Asia: working women earn about 60% of what men earn in Tajikistan, 61% in Uzbekistan, 75% in Kyrgyzstan, and 78% in Kazakhstan.

The article entitled “For Faster Growth, Central Asia Must Confront Biased Perceptions about the Value of Women’s Work”, in particular, says that where women are empowered, they can contribute their full potential—leading to a more diverse and dynamic workforce.  Countries with higher levels of gender equality reportedly have much higher national income per person, and faster growth, while in Central Asia, a pattern of low pay and low employment rates among women directly reduces the size of the region’s economies and increases the number of people living in poverty.

If women across Central Asia were to participate in equal measure to men, national income would be anywhere from 27% higher in Kazakhstan to 63% higher in Tajikistan. In Uzbekistan, equalizing the average wage among women and men who are already working would alone pull more than 700,000 people out of poverty.

Research using the World Bank’s Listening to Central Asia surveys, which on monthly basis interview members of thousands of households in four countries of the region, points to restrictive gender norms and the ways these norms translate into discrimination.  Over two-thirds of respondents across the region in 2022 reportedly said that women should prioritize caregiving and home responsibilities over work outside of the home, while men should be the primary breadwinners (see Figure 1).  Between 20-50% also said that married women should earn less than their husbands for the sake of family harmony.  And these patterns were relatively similar whether respondents lived in urban or rural areas.

All of this demonstrates the high prevalence of restrictive gender norms and expectations that discourage women's full participation in the labor market.     

These experiments show that social norms drive unequal economic outcomes between men and women across Central Asia.  Beyond individual preferences, barriers limit opportunities to both men and women with respect to their work and incomes, disproportionately harming employment prospects for women.  Through lower incomes and less economic activity, these patterns contribute to higher poverty rates and slower economic growth.

Removing legal barriers to equality is a critical first step to addressing this, and several governments are taking decisive action.  Last year, Uzbekistan was the first in Central Asia to join 95 other countries around the world and almost all high-income countries in mandating equal pay between men and women for work of equal value. The other governments in Central Asia should follow suit and actively implement equal pay requirements in practice.

In 2021, Kazakhstan lifted restrictions on “banned professions” where women were previously not permitted to work.  Countries in Central Asia that continue banning women from professions should follow this example and remove all such restrictions.

However, legal reform alone will not reverse the social norms that perpetuate gender imbalances in work and pay.  To tackle these inequalities, employers, workers, governments, and the public must confront widespread perceptions about the role and value of women’s work.  Without general agreement that discrimination and inequality of opportunity are injustices to be addressed, Central Asia will continue to underperform in reducing poverty and achieving inclusive growth.