To Boost Women’s Employment, Start With the City

9 July 2015
ABOUT THIS Perspective

Efforts to boost women's employment must take into account the role of the city government, especially its responsibility to provide safe, reliable and women-friendly public transport.

This piece is part of an “Urbanization and Jobs” series hosted on the JustJobs blog.

In an effort to realize their much-anticipated “demographic dividends,” many countries throughout the Global South are looking to boost women’s employment. The move is based on a hard-nosed economic argument: A 2012 study showed that if female employment rates matched that of males in India, GDP would rise by 27 percent. In Egypt, it would rise by 34 percent.

Recognizing the social and economic importance of women’s workforce participation is a critical step in the right direction. But government-led efforts to encourage women to work must take into account the myriad barriers they face in accessing and keeping a job. And those efforts must engage policymakers at the all levels – including city governments.

Much of the dialogue on women’s empowerment focuses on national policy interventions. Granted, there is much room for improvement: Gender “mainstreaming” in employment and skill development policy has often involved two steps forward and one step back. The garment sector – leveraging a conventionally feminine skill to drive up women’s rates of labor force participation, but at huge social costs – is the quintessential example.

Meanwhile, the role of city-level policymakers in making the working world friendlier to women has gone largely unexamined.

Ensuring safe, affordable and reliable public transportation – the responsibility of the city – is one of the most important ways countries throughout the developing world – and developed world, too – can boost women’s employment rates.

Transportation is one of several policy arenas that has a disproportionate impact on women.

When public transport is either nonexistent or too unsafe, women’s employment prospects are sharply circumscribed – limited to home-based work or a proximate job. When one considers that 54 percent of working Indian women feel unsafe on their daily commute, the country’s extremely low female participation rate (27 percent) starts to make more sense.

Efficiency and reliability of public transport also impact women disproportionately. That’s for the simple reason that working women continue to take on the bulk of household responsibilities. Research shows that – combining paid and unpaid work – women throughout the world spend more hours working than men, meaning that long or unpredictable commutes place greater strain on their schedules.

While the research community has focused on studying the impact of other interventions on women’s employment – like skilling programs and childcare facilities – groundbreaking research is finally underway to better understand the link between public transport and women’s workforce participation. Researchers from Duke University are examining the impact of women’s-only transport and transport subsidies in Lahore, Pakistan through a randomized control trial.

The city can and should act as a testing ground for local policies aimed at improving women’s employment opportunities and outcomes.

It’s time we asked our mayors to take the lead in ensuring gender parity in the world of work.