Many factors lie behind observed gender gaps in labor market outcomes in Latin American and the Caribbean. But one remains largely invisible: transport and urban mobility.
Women in the region have greater childcare responsibilities and do more unpaid work at home than their male partners. As a study we recently conducted in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires reveals, they also walk more and rely less on cars to move around the city. And they spend a larger share of their income traveling to potential jobs, while confronting greater security threats on public transport.
More inclusive transport and urban development policies are essential. Men and women, we found, move about and experience urban space differently, reflecting the unequal distribution of paid and unpaid work between genders and the double workload faced by women with children. For example, women make more trips than men each day—a gap that tends to increase with caregiving responsibilities. According to our study, more than half of the trips made by men are related to work, while for women that percentage drops to 31%, almost equal to the number of trips they take for caregiving purposes (29%).
Daily Mobility and Access to Jobs
These differences in commuting patterns both result from and contribute to lower labor participation rates for women, including more part time or hybrid work. An index we constructed of women’s potential access to the labor market in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area portrays this dynamic. The index takes into account the distribution of job opportunities, the distances to them, and the percentage of their income individuals would have to spend on public transport to get to jobs.
We identify clear gender, geographic and socioeconomic cleavages. Women, on average, have slightly lower job accessibility than men, at 65.1% vs. 68.7%. This gap is virtually non-existent in the wealthiest quintile, but it is quite large in the poorest one, with poorer women able to reach 50% of jobs, compared to 60% of poorer men. This mobility gap, in turn, puts additional pressure on gender wage disparities, especially in the most vulnerable sectors, since women have to allocate a greater share of their income to pay for their commute to work.
Labor Accessibility by Sex and Income Level
The ideal, of course, is to move to a more egalitarian division of unpaid labor, thus freeing women up to take greater advantage of opportunities in the labor market. In transition to that goal, however, changes in public transport and the use of urban spaces could make a real difference.
Improving Mobility for Women
First, public transportation services have to be strengthened. As shown in an IDB study in Lima, an expansion of bus rapid transit services there had a positive effect on women’s employment and income. Such services must be well integrated with non-motorized transport infrastructure, such as sidewalk and cycling lanes, to accommodate women’s commutes.
Second, attention has to be given to cost. That includes the potential use of targeted fare reductions as well as integrated fares across modes to increase the use of public transport. To the extent that women make less money, targeting such fare reductions, or subsidies, by socioeconomic level would help reduce gender gaps without neglecting the most vulnerable.
Third, reducing the division of commercial and residential areas and creating more mixed-use ones could improve access to the labor market and reconcile paid and unpaid work. This process might involve moving some jobs to the periphery as well as expanding the supply of affordable housing in urban centers.
Finally, public transportation systems must be designed so that they guarantee the physical safety of women. One example, implemented in Mexico City (“Viajemos Seguras” Let’s Travel Safely), set aside subway cars exclusively for women and succeeded in reducing the sexual harassment of women by 2.9 percentage points. Although these measures have alleviated the problem in the short term, they must be complemented by policies that provide timely attention to victims and eradicate aggressive and violent behavior, especially against women, to achieve sustainable results in the long run.
As societies, we must rethink public policies related to mobility in terms of gender. It is essential for promoting women’s rights. It is crucial to their economic autonomy—their ability to access more jobs and balance their unpaid and paid work—and to their physical integrity. Closing gender gaps are at the end of the day a prerequisite for achieving inclusive and sustainable development with greater productivity, economic development and social well-being.