WASHINGTON Progress toward achieving gender equality around the globe has stalled in recent years, with women still holding fewer salaried jobs than men and receiving lower wages for their work, the IMF said in a study on Monday.
Under its first female chief, Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund has renewed its push to strengthen the role of women in the economy, arguing it can raise growth prospects and improve development.
Just having as many women in the labor force as men could boost economic growth by 5 percent in the United States, 9 percent in Japan, and 34 percent in Egypt, the IMF said.
In its study, the Fund said women have made gains in certain countries but still face discrimination and tax and labor policies that discourage them from working.
Around the world, half of women participate in the labor force, but that number falls to just a fifth in places like the Middle East and North Africa.
The gap between men and women in the labor force has narrowed since 1990, and women now account for 40 percent of the global pool of labor. But in Japan, for example, 25 percent fewer women participate in the labor force than men.
Lagarde said it has been difficult to sustain momentum after the great progress on gender equality since the 1950s.
"There's an element of maybe fatigue, maybe déjà vu, maybe we should go back to business because we've made so much progress," she said in an interview.
"And yet it's really ... a cause that needs constant attention, resilience, and continued momentum."
The global recession has also complicated the problem. In advanced economies, fewer women than men lost their jobs in the first years of the crisis, from 2007 to 2009, as job losses were concentrated in male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction. From 2011 to 2012, women continued to lose jobs while the unemployment rate for men stabilized or fell.
In developing countries, the economic crisis affected women disproportionately. In Mexico and Honduras, women accounted for 70 percent of all lay-offs.
Across advanced economies, women also continue to be paid 16 percent less than men, even in the same occupations, and are less represented in senior positions and among entrepreneurs.
"GRIT YOUR TEETH, SMILE"
To encourage more women to seek paid work, the IMF said countries should amend laws that tax family income instead of individual income -- such as France, Portugal and the United States -- to avoid forcing married couples to pay higher taxes if they both have jobs outside the home.
The IMF also urged countries to implement paid parental leave, including for fathers, improve access to affordable child care and, in developing countries, improve women's access to education and infrastructure.
Countries like the United States have long debated policies to address the "glass ceiling," or discrimination against women blamed for the dearth of female top executives.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg earlier this year sparked a fierce debate with the publication of her book "Lean In," which argues women should also do more themselves to succeed in the boardroom and command respect.
Lagarde, who wrote the foreword to the French translation of "Lean In," said she believes progress on gender equality must involve both societal changes to address discrimination, and individual responsibility.
Lagarde broke through several "glass ceilings" throughout her career. She was the first female chair of the law firm Baker & McKenzie and as French finance minister was the first female finance minister in the Group of Eight advanced economies.
While discrimination plays a role in limiting career options, women themselves are also less likely to argue for higher salaries or bigger bonuses in performance reviews, Lagarde said.
"Everyone is accountable to push obstacles and to remove barriers, even if those barriers are sometimes within ourselves," said Lagarde, a former member of the French national synchronized swimming team.
"I was brought up with a coach that always told us, when the going gets tough, grit your teeth, smile and get on with it," she said. "It's a little bit of the 'lean in' approach to life."
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; editing by Andrew Hay)