Can ride-hailing drive more women into India's labour force? | Mint

Can ride-hailing drive more women into India's labour force?

Despite a recent uptick, India’s female labour force participation rate is abysmally low by global standards (around 30%, against the world average of 47%). Photo: Mint
Despite a recent uptick, India’s female labour force participation rate is abysmally low by global standards (around 30%, against the world average of 47%). Photo: Mint

Summary

  • A new study commissioned by Uber suggests ride-hailing services can bring more women into the workforce. While safer commutes could improve India's low female labour force participation somewhat, they address only part of the problem.

“Behind every working woman is an enormous pile of unwashed laundry," American cartoonist Barbara Dale once said, humorously describing the struggles of women who, despite going out to work, find no respite from unpaid domestic work.

Add to this gender bias at work, restrictions on mobility and safety concerns, and it becomes incredibly challenging for women to juggle work with everything else. As a result, many withdraw from the labour market.

Despite a recent uptick, India’s female labour force participation rate is abysmally low by global standards (around 30%, against the world average of 47%).

Modern-day facilities may offer possible solutions. Take for example ride-hailing, which can make commutes safer and more convenient for women who can afford it (though richer women are less likely to go out to work). A study conducted by Oxford Economics and commissioned by Uber that was released last month found that a large chunk of working women in metros (29% in Mumbai and 52% in Chennai) agreed that ride-hailing allowed them to join the workforce or become full-time workers. The share was higher among women with young children.

The study also projected that ride-hailing services could bring an additional 0.32-0.56 million women into the workforce in five big Indian cities by 2028, translating into a 4% to 6.9% increase in the female labour force of those cities.

While ride-hailing is a potent option for many working women, it solves only a part of the problem.

The long walk

"Greater availability of ride-hailing services will certainly help highly-educated and high-earning urban women, but it cannot be looked at in isolation," said feminist economist Mitali Nikore. “We need to make public transportation and roads safer, too, for the majority of women who struggle to afford these services."

Several surveys have found that limited mobility is one of the reasons many women refrain from formal work. According to India's 2011 census (the latest available national-level data), among women who travel for work, walking and taking a bus are the two most popular options. Among men, two-wheelers (including bicycles) are the most common mode of transport.

Since only a tiny proportion of women in the upper socio-economic strata can afford ride-hailing services, making streets and public transportation safer and more accessible (as some state governments have tried with free bus rides for women) could bring many more women into the workforce.

The pink tax

Apart from spending more than twice as much time on unpaid household and care work as men, women also pay a price for the lack of infrastructure. The Uber-Oxford Economics survey showed that safety trumped price for non-working women when considering travel to a prospective workplace, and the opposite was true for men.

A 2022 World Bank report titled “Toolkit for Enabling Gender Responsive Urban Mobility and Public Spaces" mapped out the differences in mobility for men and women that limited women’s participation in work outside their homes.

For women, travel is often limited to activities other than work. They also tend to take shorter trips, mostly during off-peak hours, use public transport more, and pay extra to feel safer. “The lack of safe public transport options deters women from accessing promising opportunities and amounts to levying a ‘pink tax’ on them," the report said.

The demand problem

While looking for solutions to mobility or any other issue related to working women, it’s important to note that not all problems are “supply-side". It’s not just that many women shun paid work because of societal factors, but also that fewer jobs are available to them in the first place, several experts argue.

In a 2021 article countering the view that women were quitting paid work because of increased sexual violence, Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University, wrote that the decline in the participation rate could also be “a manifestation of the changing nature of work availability, especially for rural and less educated women".

Industrial segregation – i.e. the prominence of one gender over the other – has also increased over the years. While safer mobility offers solutions to some problems, demand-side issues and the burden of unpaid household work are larger issues that need to be addressed through policy interventions and increased social awareness.

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