How Laws and Policies Can Close — or Widen — Gender Gaps New book by UCLA researchers shows that progress toward gender equality has stalled, particularly for caregivers in the U.S.

By Les Dunseith

A comprehensive review of economic gender equality in 193 countries by the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center identifies global trends and exposes policy gaps that include shortcomings when it comes to caregiving.

When the authors of a new open-access book first began tracking maternity leave policies around the world in 2000, they were alarmed to find that 18 countries had no national paid leave in place for working mothers. Today, seven remaining countries still lack such protection — five small island nations, Papua New Guinea, and the United States of America.

The book, “Equality within Our Lifetimes,” pulls together information from more than a decade of research that has also been collected into a robust, freely downloadable database. Co-author Jody Heymann, a professor at UCLA and founding director of WORLD, said that through the 1980s gender equality was rapidly advancing.

“There were more women entering the workforce. There were increased economic opportunities for women, increased educational opportunities,” she said. “That progress has completely stalled.”

The country’s gender wage gap has barely budged for 15 years. What’s more, it’s even broader among parents. In 2021, the average mother working full-time in the U.S. still earned just 73 cents for each dollar earned by a father working full-time.

Because U.S. women remain predominantly responsible for all types of caregiving, it’s not just new mothers who are impacted by the continued lack of federal paid family leave and other legal protections for caregivers in the workplace. The authors cite studies that show women are three times as likely as men in the U.S. to lose their jobs or to leave the workforce because they’re caring for an ill adult.

The economy has felt the impacts. From 2000 to 2019, the U.S. dropped from 7th to 23rd in a ranking of 36 high-income countries on women’s participation in the labor market, Heymann noted. Amid COVID-19, women’s labor force participation fell to its lowest rate since 1987 and has yet to fully recover — with Black and Latina women experiencing the greatest losses.

Heymann and her research team analyzed national laws and policies in all 193 countries of the United Nations. Among their findings:

  • Although nearly all countries (93%) now prohibit at least some form of gender discrimination in the workplace, only half prohibit discrimination based on family responsibilities.
  • In 1 in 5 countries, employers can legally discriminate against women of color because laws fail to prohibit employment discrimination based on both gender and race.
  • Over five years since #MeToo went global, 1 in 4 countries still fail to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment at work. In about one-third of countries, the law is silent on employer retaliation, meaning women can be fired if they report harassment.
  • Two- thirds of countries fail to provide paid leave to care for a child during routine illnesses or to take them to the doctor.
  • A majority of countries (58%) provide no paid leave to care for an ill spouse, and 61% offer no paid leave to care for an aging parent.

color coded map

Fathers of infants have far less paid leave available to them than do mothers.

More encouraging for the authors is a worldwide trend toward paid leave for new fathers. Between 1995 and 2022, 71 countries enacted paid leave for dads, increasing the share of countries globally with leave from 24% to 63%. The U.S is not among them.

In the United States, some private employers and 11 states, including California, now offer paid parental leave, although inconsistently. Co-author Aleta Sprague, an attorney and senior legal analyst at WORLD, said the negative impact of not providing paid family leave at the national level is far-reaching.

“It’s no longer in question that our lack of support for new parents and other caregivers is driving women to leave the labor force,” Sprague said. “And that in turn is a barrier to economic growth.”

UC Press is releasing the book — authored by Heymann, Sprague, and co-author Amy Raub, principal research analyst at WORLD — at roughly the halfway point of the Sustainable Development Goals, a 2015 United Nations commitment to ensure equal rights across the globe by 2030. It is being distributed online, accompanied by briefing papers and downloadable assets in multiple languages, as part of a commitment to making top university research readily available to everybody, Heymann said.

The book presents new research on the extent and pace of policy change in 193 countries as well as new longitudinal studies of policy impact, bolstered by case studies that show how change can occur. The lesson from around the world is that solutions exist from every political perspective.

“The way you get to 187 countries providing paid maternity leave, the way you get to every other major economy providing paid sick leave except for the United States, is that there are conservative solutions, there are progressive solutions, there are middle-of-the-road solutions,” Heymann said.

There’s little disagreement among the general public about the need for paid family leave. The Family Medical Leave Act, a 1993 law that guarantees unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons only for some employees, has proven to be inadequate. Heymann said polls have shown that across party lines and across states, paid family leave is popular.

People want parents to be able to take time to care for a newborn child. They want adults to be able to take time to care for a dying parent,” Heymann said. “And they don’t want American parents to drop into poverty because of it.”

So, is it possible to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes?

“It is completely within our reach,” Heymann said. “There are solutions that can be achieved in real time, that are feasible.”

Sprague’s answer is similar. “I think we know how to get there. One thing that this book illustrates is how feasible it is and how much of a difference a few key policy changes can make.”

Moreover, Heymann emphasized, the standard arguments against some of those key policies in the U.S. overlook critical evidence about their potential for impact. “Too often, policymakers highlight the costs of paid leave without acknowledging its overwhelming payoffs,” she said. “The evidence is clear that when women in particular have access to paid leave for family caregiving needs, they are far more likely to stay in the workforce — and even slightly narrowing the gender gap in labor force participation would boost our GDP by hundreds of billions. It’s a powerful investment.”

Heymann pointed to studies from McKinsey, the World Bank, and others demonstrating how advancing gender equality pays huge dividends.

“At core, gender equality is a basic human right,” she continued. “But it also yields tremendous economic value—and the U.S.’s continued inaction comes at a high cost to us all.”


To conduct the studies referenced in this book, a multilingual, multidisciplinary research team systematically analyzed the laws and policies of all 193 U.N. member states. They also rigorously analyzed the impacts of legal changes around the world. The book is being distributed through UC Press, and downloadable resources are being made available on the website of the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center.

The WORLD Policy Analysis Center (WORLD) at UCLA is the largest independent global policy data center, capturing over 2,500 social, economic, health, and environmental quantitative legal indicators for all 193 U.N. countries. With an international, multilingual, and multidisciplinary team, WORLD collects and analyzes information on every country’s rights, laws, and policies in areas including education, health, adult labor and working conditions, child labor, poverty, constitutional rights, discrimination, childhood, gender, marriage, families, aging, and disability. Heymann, the center’s founding director, is a distinguished professor of public policy, medicine, and health policy and management at UCLA with appointments in the Fielding School of Public Health, Luskin School of Public Affairs and David Geffen School of Medicine. She is also dean emeritus of the Fielding School.


Science, Health Leaders Unite Around National Firearm Policy Reforms

A nationwide coalition of more than 1,200 leaders in science and health, including more than 450 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, has submitted a letter urging the United States Senate to rapidly pass legislation advancing evidence-based approaches to reduce the toll of gun violence in America. The coalition, with Jody Heymann of the Fielding School of Public Health and UCLA Luskin Public Policy serving as lead author, calls for reforms in four key policy areas:

  • prohibiting people who have committed violent crimes or have domestic violence restraining orders from purchasing firearms;
  • adopting child access prevention and safe gun storage laws, which studies show would reduce gun suicides and unintentional gun deaths among children and youths;
  • requiring firearm licensing and training requirements, especially for people obtaining guns for the first time;
  • taking action on large-capacity magazines as a way to significantly lower deaths in mass shootings.

Among the letter’s signatories are researchers from every region of the country, including college presidents and university deans. The health and science leaders also commend the recent bipartisan deal in Congress on a set of reforms that would begin to make progress in some areas. Heymann is a distinguished professor of health policy and management, public policy, and medicine and a former dean at the Fielding School. “Each of these recommendations has been studied through research comparing the experiences of states with and without certain laws over time—and the evidence is clear they work,” she said.


U.S. Must Step Up and Provide Family Leave, Heymann Says

Professor Jody Heymann joined PBS’ “News Hour” and NPR’s “On Point” to discuss the debate over national paid family leave in the United States. Democrats continue to haggle over a social spending bill, and a proposal to include paid leave remains in limbo. “Nearly the entire world offers paid leave,” with 181 out of 192 countries offering paid sick leave and 185 offering paid maternity leave, said Heymann, distinguished professor of public health, public policy and medicine. “We know that we can afford it,” she said. “It saves money because it makes people healthier,” lowering health care costs. For small businesses unable to bear the full burden of providing paid family leave for all their employees, “that’s what the social insurance system is for, and that’s how most of the world does it,” she said. As for the political forces at play, Heymann added, “Hearing from all Americans about what a difference this would make would be a good place to start.”

U.S. Lags on Paid Leave, Heymann Says

The New York Times spoke to Jody Heymann, a UCLA distinguished professor of public health, public policy and medicine, about access to family and medical leave. Congressional Democrats are proposing four weeks of paid leave, down from 12 weeks initially sought in their spending plan. If the plan becomes law, the United States will no longer be one of six countries in the world without any form of national paid leave. However, it would still be an outlier. Of the 174 countries that offer paid leave for a personal health problem, just 26 offer four weeks or fewer, according to data from UCLA’s World Policy Analysis Center, which Heymann directs. “When you look at other countries, there is evidence of what people need and what’s feasible,” Heymann said. “And by both of those measures, 12 weeks is a modest amount, and anything less is grossly inadequate. The rest of the world, including low-income countries, has found a way to do this.”


U.S. Sick and Medical Leave Policies Widen Racial Inequalities, Study Finds

Paid sick and medical leave is a powerful tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases and ensuring all workers have access to treatment, yet tens of millions of American workers lack coverage. The U.S. is one of just 11 countries in the world without a national, permanent paid medical leave policy, according to new research led by Jody Heymann, distinguished professor of public health, public policy and medicine. Further, unpaid leave provided by the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is restricted by eligibility rules that have created marked racial and gender gaps, said Heymann, who directs the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. The study, published in Health Affairs, included these findings:

  • In the private sector, 18.7% of Latinas, compared to just 8.4% of white men, lack access to FMLA leave because of its minimum annual hours requirement.
  • Requiring one year with the same employer excludes higher shares of Black (22%), Indigenous (22.9%) and self-identified multiracial (27.7%) workers than white workers (19%).
  • Over a third of private-sector workers are employed by a business with fewer than 50 employees, making them ineligible for FMLA benefits.

The study’s analysis of data from 181 countries found that providing paid sick and medical leave to all workers — including the self-employed, a group commonly excluded from key social security and labor protections — is readily achievable. “Only by ensuring we design our paid leave policies to reach every worker can we protect public health and take one important step toward rectifying the longstanding and devastating racial and socioeconomic inequalities that have only intensified during this pandemic,” Heymann said.


UCLA Research Finds U.S. Lags Behind Other Nations in Limiting Detention of Migrant Children

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified calls to end the detention of migrant children, as cases surge among children held in crowded conditions. Yet immigration detention’s threats to the fundamental rights of children did not begin with the current public health crisis. Unlike nearly three-quarters of high-income countries, the U.S. has no laws specifically limiting the detention of accompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children, according to a new study by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s WORLD Policy Analysis Center (WORLD). Moreover, the U.S. offers minimal legal protection for unaccompanied minors, and for children who are detained, and the U.S. has no legal guarantees of access to adequate health care or education. “The U.S. lags behind when it comes to protecting the most fundamental rights of migrant children,” said Jody Heymann, a UCLA distinguished professor of public health, public policy and medicine who serves as director of WORLD. International treaties are clear that detaining children based on citizenship is a violation of human rights law. Heymann and her research team systematically coded legal restrictions on detention of child migrants in the 150 most populous United Nations-member countries, as well as literature on the costs and benefits of varying approaches to keeping such children safe and under responsible oversight. Their study, published in the International Journal of Human Rights, found that while the U.S. falls behind other high-income nations, gaps in legal protections persist across the board. “These longstanding gaps in the law have left countless children vulnerable to grave health risks and human rights violations,” Heymann said.


Global Study Finds Critical Gaps in Workplace Protections Laws prohibiting discrimination are key to ensuring equal economic opportunity, UCLA researchers say

As throngs of people around the world stand in solidarity with American protesters calling for an end to racial injustice, a sweeping study of 193 countries by the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center reveals critical gaps in legal protections against discrimination on the job.

Nearly one in four countries continue to have no legal protection from discrimination at work based on race and ethnicity, according to the study, just published in the journal Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

This is not a question of a nation’s resources, researchers found. In fact, high-income countries do slightly worse: 28% of high-income countries fail to have any protections, compared to 19% of low-income countries and 23% of middle-income countries.

Even in countries that prohibit discrimination, substantial gaps in legal protections exist. Globally, 51% of countries offer no protection from retaliation against workers who report discriminatory treatment based on race or ethnicity, preventing individuals from accessing justice, the study revealed.

Moreover, laws against discrimination often provided only partial protection or failed to specify areas covered. The study analyzed laws and regulations governing hiring, pay, promotions and demotions, terminations and harassment in all 193 members of the United Nations.

“Discrimination at work persists across countries, but there is powerful evidence that anti-discrimination laws can make a difference,” said Jody Heymann, founder of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center and a distinguished professor of public policy, health policy and management, and medicine at UCLA. “All the world’s countries have agreed to address inequality, over and over again, at the U.N. This cannot be achieved without providing legal guarantees to non-discrimination at work for all people.”

In addition to race and ethnicity, WORLD researchers assessed gaps in national legislation protecting against discrimination based on sex, parenting status, gender identity, sexual orientation, migrant status and foreign national origin, among other groupings. Among the findings:

• 53% of the countries do not guarantee equal pay for work of equal value based on sex
• 62% do not prohibit discrimination based on parenting status
• 68% do not guarantee protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation
• 90% do not guarantee protection from discrimination at work based on gender identity
• 62% do not guarantee protection from discrimination based on migrant status
• 62% do not guarantee protection from discrimination based on foreign national origin

“Equal access to decent work is one of the most promising ways to end cycles of poverty, yet discrimination on the job persists,” said study co-author Amy Raub, principal research analyst at WORLD. “Legal protection from workplace discrimination is a critical first step to ensuring equal opportunities for economic success.”

In addition to the newly published research, the WORLD Policy Analysis Center has posted detailed data, maps, charts and policy briefs on workplace discrimination in four categories: race and ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, and migrant status.

Paid Sick Leave a Crucial Weapon During COVID-19 Era and Beyond Global study shows that gaps in coverage for ailing workers put nations’ health and economic security at risk

By Mary Braswell

At a time when the world’s attention is focused on curbing the spread of infectious disease, new research by the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center shows that strengthening guarantees of paid sick leave is crucial to protecting health and economic security around the globe.

Just published in the journal Global Public Health, the study found that almost every country (94%) mandates some form of paid sick leave at the national level. The United States is one of 11 countries that do not.

Yet, even in nations that guarantee paid time off for illness, the analysis showed critical gaps that undermined the ability of sick workers to follow public health advice and stay home from the very first day of illness. This was true in such countries as Italy and Iran, among the hardest hit in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the study noted.

Rules that limit the duration of leave, set low rates of pay and exclude certain classes of employees put countries’ health and economic systems at risk, the study concluded. The global health emergency underscores the consequences.

‘The cost of providing paid sick leave is modest compared to the cost of reining in a pandemic.’ — Jody Heymann, founder of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center

“The cost of providing paid sick leave is modest compared to the cost of reining in a pandemic,” said Jody Heymann, founder of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center and a distinguished professor of public policy, health policy and management, and medicine at UCLA.

“This is particularly true once the more rapid spread of disease caused by workers going to work sick is factored in,” said study co-author Amy Raub, principal research analyst at WORLD. She pointed to previous studies showing that ill employees are 1.5 times more likely to go to work when they lack strong paid leave guarantees.

Heymann and Raub led the research team that analyzed government policies in all 193 U.N. member states to answer an array of questions: When do paid sick leave benefits begin and how long do they last? What is the rate of pay? Are self-employed and part-time workers covered? Are there exemptions for small businesses? The findings are based on long-term policies in place as of March 2019 and do not reflect temporary policy changes in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

“The pandemic provides a stark illustration that expanding sick leave protections to the world’s workers is urgently needed,” Raub said.

Recognizing that their paid sick leave policies left them ill-equipped to combat COVID-19, countries around the world put stronger protections in place. However, Heymann said, “these temporary changes do not ensure that countries are prepared for the next pandemic.”

“In the last 20 years, the world has battled a series of acute health emergencies,” said Heymann, citing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002, the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012, among other outbreaks. “And new and dangerous respiratory diseases are bound to emerge.”

“Well-designed paid sick leave is critical to ensure workers stay home when sick to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious pathogens — both when the economy is open and during an economic shutdown,” Raub said.

The new study found strong sick-leave policies in place in both low-income and affluent countries. In key areas, the United States’ record lagged far behind:

  • The U.S. has no permanent national sick leave policy, although some state and local governments have adopted protections.
  • Even if the nationwide emergency paid sick leave act adopted amid the coronavirus outbreak were made permanent, the U.S. would be the only country to exclude workers from the benefits based solely on the size of the business they work for.

Beyond the United States, there are critical global gaps:

  • 58% of countries do not explicitly guarantee paid sick leave to self-employed workers. This group makes up nearly half of the world’s work force, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization.
  • 65% of countries — including 54% of high-income countries — do not explicitly guarantee paid sick leave to part-time workers. This gap disproportionately impacts women, who are more likely to be employed part time than men in nearly every country.

To conduct the study, the multilingual research team analyzed the full texts of labor and social security legislation, as well as other resources. For each of the 193 countries, source materials were read independently by two researchers, who then compared and reconciled their assessments.

View a fact sheet and maps illustrating key findings from this report here. Questions about the study may be directed to Erin Bresnahan at the WORLD Policy Analysis Center.

The WORLD Policy Analysis Center at UCLA is a nonprofit policy research center that aims to improve the quantity and quality of globally comparative data on policies affecting human health, development, well-being and equity. With this data, WORLD informs policy debates and advances efforts to improve government transparency and accountability. The center’s founding director, Jody Heymann, is a distinguished professor at the Fielding School of Public Health, Luskin School of Public Affairs and David Geffen School of Medicine. She is also dean emeritus of the Fielding School.

Heymann Recommends Investing in Preventive Health Workforce

Distinguished Professor of Public Policy Jody Heymann co-authored an opinion piece in the Hill arguing that creation of a “preventive health workforce” is key to reopening the economy and protecting the nation’s health and security. Heymann and co-author Aleta Sprague called for investing in a “national cohort of health workers who can roll out each element of the national COVID-19 strategy” and would continue to reduce preventable deaths from other causes once the pandemic is contained. They argued that strengthening the public health infrastructure “would not only create hundreds of thousands of jobs at a time of unprecedented layoffs, it would vastly expand our capacity to contain this pandemic and prepare for the next.” They also recommended accelerating and simplifying loan forgiveness to incentivize more people with backgrounds in public health, law, social work, urban studies or health sciences to commit to preventive-health-related jobs as careers.

U.S. Lagging on Constitutional Rights, Study Finds

New research from the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center shows that the United States is falling behind its global peers when it comes to guarantees for key constitutional rights. “The new decade begins with clear constitutional gaps that place the United States in a global minority” for failing to guarantee rights to healthcare and gender equality, said Jody Heymann, founder of the nonprofit policy research center. “Globally, the U.S. now lags 165 other nations with stronger constitutional protections for women. And the U.S. is absent from the 142 countries globally … that provide some degree of constitutional protection for the right to health,” said Heymann, a distinguished professor of public policy, medicine, and health policy and management at UCLA. Worldwide, the center’s researchers found a considerable expansion of protections over the past 50 years but noted that millions are still left without human rights guarantees, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination. Groups experiencing the greatest gaps in rights guarantees include migrants, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. To produce the report, researchers analyzed the constitutions of all 193 United Nations member states. “Constitutions help shape social norms and send clear messages about who matters and what nations value,” Heymann said. The report is now available as an online resource featuring policy briefs, maps and downloadable data as well as the book “Advancing Equality,” available for  download at UC Press. The book’s authors, Heymann, Amy Raub and Aleta Sprague, also wrote an op-ed for CNN arguing that it’s time for the United States to guarantee gender equality by enshrining the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.