She drives change: Breaking barriers for women in transport

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Dar es Salaam?s new bus transit system (BRT) is decreasing transportation costs, and easing traffic throughout the city. Safe, accessible transport is essential to ensuring women’s access to economic opportunities. Copyright: Hendri Lombard/World Bank

"My parents stopped my education when I complained about the harassment on the streets and buses enroute to school. They could not always send a male member to escort me to school."

“When the office shifted, I had to take the bus to reach the new place of work. I quit the job because of the long waiting hours and the overcrowding on the bus.”

These first-hand accounts are from women in India, however experiences like this are common around the world.

The fact is, women use all forms of transport differently than men do. Transportation costs, safety concerns, and access all disproportionately impact women’s lives. Girls miss school. Women give up careers. Their access to doctors, entrepreneurship, and other opportunity can vanish without transport options that consider their needs.

The new World Bank Group Thematic Policy Note on Closing Gender Gaps in Transport provides a framework for incorporating gender-responsive transport and mobility into the World Bank Group’s Gender Strategy 2024-2030 and offers evidence and promising practices that address gender in mobility.

The cost of gendered mobility barriers

The International Labour Organization says that the lack of transport could reduce the probability of women working by 16.5% percent. Even when women can travel, research from many countries suggests that they are 10% more likely than men to feel unsafe in metros and six percent more likely to feel unsafe in buses. In Jordan, 47% of women surveyed said they turned down work because of the lack of affordable and secure options in public transportation.

Parents worry about their daughters’ safety on their way to and from school. This has lowered girls’ school enrollment rates in many countries. It has long-term impacts because families and, ultimately, countries benefit when women are educated and are employed. Reducing barriers to mobility would significantly improve women’s contribution to the economy. A McKinsey report notes that if women had an identical role to men in labor markets, global annual GDP could rise by as much as $28 trillion by 2025.

In addition to the economic benefits of addressing gendered mobility barriers, improving public transport will also have important implications for transport decarbonization. In most countries, more out of necessity than choice, women make a higher proportion of trips using public transport and walking than men, who make more trips by car or motorcycle. Making public transport more efficient, affordable, convenient and safe not only reinforces women’s use of low-carbon transport options, but it can also influence more men to shift their patterns away from private, gas-powered vehicles.  Our vision is for everyone to opt for sustainable transport, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is truly the better option. The improvements that address gendered barriers also make public transport systems better for everyone, regardless of their gender.

Making transport more accessible to women as employees

The World Bank Group‘s proposed new 2024-30 gender strategy includes supporting women’s leadership and expanding services that enable economic participation as objectives. The relationship between women and transport—as users, employees, leaders, and decision-makers—is key to these objectives. Transport is a crucial component of the global economy and a major employer, albeit primarily of men.  Women make up about 16 percent of employees in transport, storage, and communication worldwide. If women do work in transport, it is often as sales personnel or administrative staff. This excludes them from roles in transport planning, and design even though globally women tend to take more trips via public transport than men do.

Women are particularly underrepresented in customer-facing roles – such as drivers and conductors – engineers, and mid and senior management roles. Poor working conditions, including lack of access to sanitary and break facilities, lack of flexible work shifts, and violence, harassment, and discrimination, are some of the many barriers that women face to entering and staying in these roles. “Most of the time, I have to relieve myself at home before going out to work. I try not to use public places because I don’t want to go to unsanitary bathrooms. But I know it may be serious for the kidneys’ health,” a woman metro driver in Tunis told the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

The lack of women employees at all levels, from boardrooms to bus drivers, prevents the sector from sufficiently addressing the needs of women passengers or from shaping and planning better transport services overall. Women’s participation, leadership and decision-making in the transport sector will not just benefit women users of transportation. Women leaders in transport can play an active role in shaping the transport sector to perform better for all, as well as improve financial performance, innovation, employment retention, service delivery and promote safer working environments. Companies with greater gender parity in senior leadership better manage environmental, social and governance risks.

How to drive change

The Thematic Note on Closing Gender Gaps in Transport points out that because gender norms play a key role in defining mobility patterns, like the decision to travel outside the home, there’s an urgent need for innovative, holistic policies that tackle women’s mobility barriers. For instance, governments could prioritize road work near schools and hospitals and plan transport hubs accessible to daycare centers. Transport subsidies could be included in cash transfer programs for low-income women. Collaborating with universities and transport agencies could open up more internships and jobs for women in STEM. Transport employers should train their staff in preventing and managing violence, as well as responding to sexual harassment.

These interventions require collaboration with non-transport entities, such as the ministries of Social Protection, Women, Youth, Health, Education, as well as universities, and businesses. Civil society support is also crucial for changes in mindsets and behaviors toward women’s use of transport.

The World Bank Group is putting these approaches to help improve women’s and girls’ mobility and employment into practice in several countries:

  • In Quito, Ecuador, 91% of women report harassment in public spaces. A project to expand public transit includes new communications systems to report harassment. Gender sensitivity training was also introduced to transit staff.
  • In Mozambique, half of all women ages 15–34 say that distance limits their access to health care. The World Bank is improving feeder roads.
  • In Pakistan, a project is improving safety and access to schools, health facilities, and markets in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Transport is subsidized for girls from marginalized communities.
  • In Azerbaijan, the government repealed 674 job restrictions on women’s employment, working with the World Bank to show that these roles (such as laying asphalt) posed no specific threats to women’s health.

Safe, accessible transport is essential to ensuring women’s access to economic opportunities. With more women in the driver’s seat – including leadership roles – we can expect to see real progress. 


With thanks to Nato Kurshitashvili and Karla Dominguez Gonzalez, Senior Gender Specialists, Transport GP, and Laura Rawlings, Lead Economist, Gender Group, for their work in preparing this blog.


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Nicolas Peltier-Thiberge

Global Director for Transport, World Bank

Hana Brixi

Global Director, Gender

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