New Delhi: It is widely acknowledged that gender gap in employment is an important fetter for India in realizing its full economic potential. The McKinsey Global Institute, for instance, estimates that India’s economic output in 2025 can be higher by as much as 60% if women’s participation in the economy were on par with that of men.

A multitude of socio-economic factors are responsible for this, but can distance and the difficulty to commute be among them?

Census data on distance travelled and the mode of transport used to commute to the workplace can give an idea of the problem which women workers face on account of travelling to work. The 2011 census has collected this data for “other workers" for the first time. Broadly speaking, all workers except cultivators, agricultural labourers and household workers are treated as other workers.

There are 15.7 crore male and 4.4 crore female workers in the other workers category. Out of these, 30% do not undertake any travel to work and 39% travel less than 5 km. About one in every 10 worker has to travel more than 20 km. Classifying them by the mode of transport used shows that roughly one in four workers travel on foot and a similar number use two-wheelers. Only about 15% use bus or trains.

There are significant gender-based disparities. As the charts below show, the share of women is relatively higher among those who don’t have to travel and declines as the distance to the place of work increases. Also, the gender gap is higher in rural areas and there are significant state-wise differences. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are among those with the highest gender gap in employment on account of distance.

What explains this?

Rakhi Sehgal, who works with the New Trade Union Initiative, says the distance to the place of work adversely affects women’s chances of getting employment. Even if she can arrange for paying transport costs, the extra time involved may become a deterrent since women have to take care of most of the household work. Social customs can also play a role. Unlike the women-dominated garment industry in southern states, there are very few women-dominated industries in the north. This might be because even migrant women in north India find it difficult to break social taboos and travel for work, Sehgal adds.

Social barriers notwithstanding, better access to modes of transport might be preventing women to travel greater distances as well. More women workers travel on foot than men workers in both rural and urban India. In rural India, the relative share of women is much lower in terms of using popular modes of transport such as bicycles and two-wheelers, cars and small public transport like auto-rickshaw and taxi, and buses and trains. In urban areas, men have a distinct lead over women in using bicycles and two-wheelers, while relatively more women use public transport.

To be sure, it can be argued that women do not use these modes of transport because they travel shorter distances to reach work. However, some studies suggest otherwise. The United Nations, for instance, has pointed out the need for incorporating differential requirements of women in comparison to men while designing transport policies. The issues discussed include providing better sanitation and toilet facilities on roads/transit points to improving public transport infrastructure, given low access of women to private transport. The safety of women is also an important concern, all the more so in countries like India.

The issue is relevant across economic classes. While there has been a spurt in the number of women-operated cab services in major cities in the country, much needs to be done to evolve a gender sensitive transport policy in India.