OPINION: Women’s Day special — Can EVs bring ‘missing women’ back into the workforce?

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OPINION: Women’s Day special — Can EVs bring ‘missing women’ back into the workforce?
Commuting, for many of us, is an uncomplicated (if necessary) experience. But for millions of women, the simple act of leaving their homes to navigate work or errands is fraught with numerous challenges. This is why any conversation around India’s female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) is incomplete without discussing gender mobility equity.
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Although India’s FLFPR has inched up in recent years, at 37%, it remains less than half of the men’s participation rate. The gap is significantly larger in urban areas than in rural ones. The last Census showed that women comprised only 20% of the workers travelling to work outside the home. A lack of accessible, affordable, safe and convenient modes of mobility outside their immediate neighbourhoods severely limits women’s career prospects, and their ability to contribute to — and benefit from — the nation’s economic growth.

Can we design women-friendly urban mobility systems as a part of the solution? Equitable mobility opens up earning opportunities for women — with positive correlations with their household savings, children’s education and personal autonomy. But if ignored, it has the opposite effect.

What prevents mobility from being women-friendly?


Buses, trains, metro services and autos are considered the “common (wo)man’s transport”. In reality, that’s not always true. A mix of factors — from harassment in public transport, lower access to economic resources, social expectations, and a lack of women-friendly and inclusive mobility — prevents women from freely seeking work opportunities.

A report by the International Labour Organisation says that “limited access to and safety of transportation” is the greatest barrier to women’s workforce participation in developing countries. Multiple studies also show that Indian women routinely refuse work or educational opportunities, or accept lower-paying jobs, in exchange for safer commutes.

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Women’s unequal access to economic resources also imposes a lopsided commuting burden, particularly on less-privileged individuals. A Bengaluru-based survey by Alli Serona showed that lower-income women spend nearly 3 times more (as a percentage of their wages) on transportation than women with white-collar jobs.

Cultural and psychological barriers get in the way too. As a result of social conditioning and gendered roles around child-rearing and household maintenance, women typically do not see themselves as ‘drivers’. As a result, women’s share of driver’s licences (about 7%) and vehicle sales (10-12%) remains low. Even if an individual has access to a car/scooter at home, she is still likely to be reliant on family members or public transport to get around.

Finally, existing mobility options often don’t cater to women’s travel patterns. Urban women typically make shorter trips and within a limited area. Due to their domestic responsibilities, women also prefer venturing out at off-peak hours and combining multiple short trips (called trip-chaining) in one journey. Autos or cabs, which are the options usually available at off-peak hours, provide an important service, but trip-chaining via these modes is more expensive than undertaking a single, longer trip, and imposes an economic cost on users.

But technology might have the answer here too and it is probably the right time to explore if electric vehicles (EVs) can address the root causes that limit the inclusivity of mobility today.

Why ‘electric’ paves the way to better equity in mobility


Around the world, but especially in developing countries, electric two-wheelers (E2Ws) like e-scooters, e-bikes and other micro-mobility vehicles are accelerating inclusion and equity in mobility. E2Ws can be a vital enabler for increasing India’s FLFPR and enhancing the income-generation capacity of women at the bottom of the economic pyramid – domestic helpers, gig workers, small business owners, unorganised sector employees, and more.

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E2Ws represent a quantum shift in mobility, starting with their design and adherence to urban travel needs. For instance, low-speed EVs (LSEVs), which are tremendously popular in places like China, are lightweight, easy to navigate and park, and ideal for covering short distances, making them more suitable to the average commute radius of the Indian woman. Moreover, they have the added edge of not requiring a driver’s licence to operate considering that the proportion of Indian women with a driving license is yet to reach the double digits.

In recent years, the rise of a new subcategory, viz. shared (i.e., rental) LSEVs, has been a watershed moment for the EV landscape. Such services have effectively brought down the commuter’s cost to something like Rs 3 per kilometre, drastically lowering the entry barrier for women who aspire to take up local jobs like delivery work or beautician services. The high round-the-clock vehicle availability by shared e-mobility players has enabled delivery companies and quick commerce platforms to train women delivery partners on LSEVs.

Safe mobility, as we mentioned earlier, is a huge consideration for women. LSEVs are meant for solo riders and eliminate the personal safety risks associated with using overcrowded transport. They are also digitally native by design – users can track their vehicle or battery health online, and access useful functionalities such as location tracking or driver assistance systems. These features are vital for assuring the safety and building the confidence of new or first-time riders.

Thanks to policy support in India, electric mobility as an inclusion tool is catching on. Public-private partnerships and non-profit initiatives are resulting in hundreds of women being trained as e-auto, e-bus and Metro pilots/drivers around the country. Examples can be seen in cities like Delhi, Maharashtra, Bengaluru, and Jaipur where women-driven auto-rickshaws and buses provide a viable last-mile solution while creating sustainable local jobs. The presence of women drivers also gives greater comfort to female passengers, encouraging them to venture out and take up jobs in the “male-dominated” mobility landscape.

Having said all this, we’re only at the beginning of this trend. Mainstreaming the use of EVs among vulnerable populations, including women, will require effort, time, and policy support. However, EVs inject fresh hope for an equitable, gender-balanced mobility landscape. By applying inclusive design and technologies and user-centric pricing models, EVs can potentially bring millions of ‘missing women workers’ out of the shadows and into the light of the formal workforce.

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Anuj Tewari is the Co-Founder & CFO at Yulu

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are of the author/interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity.
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