Nations should remove laws that prevent women from working in order to increase the female labor supply and boost their economies, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said on Monday.
"In too many countries, too many legal restrictions conspire against women to be economically active," Lagarde wrote in a blog. "In a world in search of growth, women will help find it, if they face a level playing field instead of an insidious conspiracy."
Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, has renewed the global financial institution's push to strengthen the role of women in the world economy, arguing that doing so can raise growth prospects and improve development.
These arguments may be more persuasive amid a global growth slowdown and in countries with rapidly aging populations like Japan, where the female labor force participation rate lags the OECD average.
But the IMF has to tread a careful line on this issue to avoid explicitly critiquing the laws in its 188 member countries, including states like Mali and Yemen, which have been among the worst performers on indices of gender equality.
The IMF has sought to couch its arguments in economic terms, saying in a previous study that 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.
In an IMF study released on Monday, Fund staff found that despite progress on gender equity, almost 90 percent of countries still have at least one legal restriction based on gender, and 28 countries have 10 or more such laws.
These include limits on women's property rights and laws that allow husbands to prevent their wives from working or prohibit women from entering certain professions.
The study finds that amending laws biased against women has been linked to women's increased participation in the work force - although it admits changes in the law may simply be a reflection of changes in social attitudes.
"In recommending equal opportunities ...this study does not intend to render a judgment of countries' broadly accepted cultural and religious norms," the IMF analysts added.