Economic Freedom, Markets, and Women's Well-Being

Women’s ability to contribute to, and benefit from, market institutions is a topic of vital economic importance. When entire groups of people, like women, are restricted from owning property, moving freely within their countries and abroad, starting a business, or working in a particular occupation, everyone is robbed of the value that could have been created if they had been allowed to share their talents and ideas with the world.

Economic freedom, the ability of individuals to make their own economic decisions, has been widely shown to promote economic and social progress—a more robust economy, higher levels of income, increased trust and honesty in government, protection of civil liberties, reduction in poverty, and improvements in health and educational outcomes. Unfortunately, in many countries, economic freedom and the institutions that protect it are not equally accessible to both women and men.

This 2020 Women and Progress report explains the construction of the Gender Disparity Index, which calculates the effect of restrictions on women who wish to participate in the market process. The Gender Disparity Index is used to adjust the index published in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World to produce a more inclusive measure of economic freedom in the world.

Do women flourish more in economically free societies? The report compares the gender-adjusted, measure of economic freedom to a broad sample of economic indicators of women’s well-being like health outcomes, labor market outcomes, and educational outcomes. Countries are sorted into quartiles according to their gender-adjusted economic freedom scores and the average outcomes are compared across quartiles, most free to least free. As the report shows, countries with greater economic freedom tend to have more desirable scores on the measures of well-being.

Since the first publication of the Women and Progress report in 2018, there have been both advances and setbacks for women’s economic rights across the globe. There are 83 countries that have moved towards gender parity under the law by granting women greater access to economic institutions. The greatest overall improvement was the removal of gender-specific labor regulations found in many countries. There have also been setbacks: 54 countries show decreases in their overall GDI scores. These countries have adopted increased restrictions on the types of occupations that women are permitted pursue or placed new restrictions on women wanting to obtain a national ID card or a passport, or to open a bank account.

Download the Publication

Two women in a discussion
Women and Progress

In 19 countries married women are required to obey their husbands and/or get their permission before seeking employment.

Economic and Labour market outcomes

Percentage of Women in Workforce, 2017

Women are more likely to participate in the formal labour market in countries that have high levels of economic freedom. In fact, women are 25% more likely to participate in the labour market in nations with high levels of economic freedom as in nations with low levels.

Percentage of Women Employed in Vulnerable Occupations, 2017

Individuals who are self-employed or contributing family workers are considered to be employed in a vulnerable occupation. Such vulnerable workers are less likely to have formal labour contracts and more likely to work in undesirable conditions. Women in nations with low levels of economic freedom are more than three times as likely to work in vulnerable occupations as those in nations with high levels.

Wage and Salaried Workers as a Percentage of Female Employment, 2017

The share of women with wage or salary contracts is more than twice as high in nations with high levels of economic freedom than it is in other nations. Women living and working in countries that have high levels of economic freedom are more likely to have a stable occupation with a predictable stream of income.

Women and Progress

Women living in countries with high levels of economic freedom can expect to live 83 years, while their counterparts living in the least economically-free countries can only expect to live 67 years—a difference of almost 15 years.

Health Outcomes

Women's Life Expectancy at Birth, 2017

Women living in countries with high levels of economic freedom have considerably longer life spans than those living in the least free countries—15 years on average.

Read More

Maternal Mortality Rate (per 100,000 live births), 2017

Women living in jurisdictions with low levels of economic freedom are 25 times more likely to die in child birth than those in nations with high levels of economic freedom.

Woman on tractor in field



Women and Progress logo

Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any new law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.

Susan B. Anthony, in her speech,
Woman's Rights to the Suffrage, given 1873




Educational Outcomes

Primary School Enrollment for Females, 2017

In countries that are economically free, 95% of primary school aged females are enrolled in school. In the least free countries, only 80.9% of females are enrolled in primary school. This is a difference of nearly 15 percentage points.

Primary School Completion for Females, 2017

Females living in the most economically free countries are also far more likely to complete their primary school education. 96.7% of females persist to the last grade of primary school in the freest countries, compared to 80.1% of females in the least free countries.

Women and Progress

As of 2018, 37 countries restrict a married woman’s ability to obtain a passport, six restrict her ability to travel outside her country in other ways, and 17 restrict her ability to simply travel outside her home.

Financial Independence Outcome

Percentage of Women with an Account at a Financial Institution, 2017

Women who live in countries with high levels of economic freedom are more likely to have a bank account, typically a key element of financial independence, than women living in places where economic freedom is low. Remarkably, only a third of women living in nations with low economic freedom hold a bank account.


  • Women and Progress 2023 Report

    Women's Economic Rights-Moving Closer to Gender Equality? finds that 13 countries improved their Gender Disparity Index score by relaxing legal restrictions on women’s economic rights from 2018 to 2020.

    Download PDF
  • Book 1 cover

    Women's Economic Rights—What's Changed and Why Does It Matter? highlights how women benefit when they enjoy the same economic rights as men, and tracks the changes from 2016 to 2018.

    Download PDF
  • Book 2 cover

    Gender Disparity under the Law and Women’s Well-Being examines the extent to which men and women enjoy equal economic rights around the world.

    Download PDF
  • Book 1 cover

    Impact of Economic Freedom and Women’s Well-Being finds that higher levels of economic freedom dramatically improves well-being for women around the world.

    Download PDF