The visit and most of the work conducted in Pakistan occurred in the first half of the project and has been docuemented in the Wemobile archive site, to which interested readers are referred (see link above).

This page contains an update of the analysis and recommendations.

Women’s employment in transport

Labour force statistics for Pakistan show that of the 5.67% total labour force employed in transport and storage (in 2017-2018), only 0.35% were women (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics). This means that it will be extremely unusual to find a woman as a transport operator. In 2015, UNESCO (as quoted on the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology (PCST) web site) found only 15.4% of women researchers in engineering and technology. PCST recognised the need for a national survey of women in science and technology. With gender employment imbalances at all levels of the industry, women’s experience of travel is not considered (2014, the United Nations Commission on the status of women) as it is beyond the understanding and beneath the level of concern of those in the industry. Opinions expressed in interviews with senior transport stakeholders were not only dismissive of women’s needs but questioned their right to be in the public realm (Iqbal, 2020).

Despite national and international directives and schemes in LMICs to increase the educational qualifications of women (in all disciplines), women face immense barriers to employment following graduation. For example, in 2016, it was estimated that only 25% of Pakistani women who hold a degree work outside the home (Tanaka and Muziones, 2016). Indeed, socio-cultural barriers may prevent women from taking up any form of employment. Those who do work may not be considered ‘respectable’ and bring shame to their families (World Bank, 2006). Gaining permission to work is just the start of a working woman’s problems. Firstly, their job opportunities are geographically restricted by transport provision and cultural and societal norms – restrict their use of certain forms of transport and time of travel. Secondly, regardless of whether a woman works or not, she will spend, on average, three times more hours a day in unpaid care and domestic work than men in LMICs (Chant, 2013; Evans, 2015). This equates to up to 8 hours of extra work a day on top of paid employment. This limits the time available for paid work, commuting, education, and leisure, further reinforcing gender-based socioeconomic disadvantage. Significantly for this paper, one of the most significant barriers to any form of female employment in Pakistan is access to safe, affordable and reliable transport (Tanaka and Muziones, 2016). Although access to cheap, safe, secure, and reliable forms of transport is key to women gaining gender equality, this needs to be accompanied by a raft of other measures.

Working in a male-dominated industry such as transport is especially challenging for reasons alluded to, for example, in Turnbull (2013) such as cultural stereotypes, legal restrictions on working time of women (which precludes them from nightwork), lack of family-friendly working arrangements, lack of facilities for females in the workplace, gender biases in human resource development policies. Organisational change, embracing gender mainstreaming, is widely advocated, e.g., in ILO Policy on Gender Equality and Mainstreaming. However, it will take time. In the meantime, insufficient progress in improving women’s mobility and quality of life is made. In using ethnographic methods and system maps, the WEMOBILE project wishes to find new ways of representing the reality of women’s lives.

Experiences of women’s mobility in Pakistan

Women in LMICs, face significantly more mobility challenges and problems than men and their counterparts in other countries. Some of these were experienced and witnessed first-hand by the research team as participant observers (Kawulich, 2005) on accompanied field trips in Lahore with the first author. Such immersive experiences into different cultures are both insightful and essential for those wishing to advise on transport in developing nations’ (Rand et al., 2011). The visiting team from the UK, Malaysia, and the US noted were subjected to harassment in the public realm and mobility restrictions imposed by social, cultural, and environmental factors.

The images above show the security at the hotel. We were not allowed out of the hotel unaccompanied, had to dress and act with utmost decorum (Humayun, 2019), were subjected to the male gaze (Nawaz, 2019) and had to be hypervigilant at all times – to avoid tripping on uneven pavements, provoking unwanted attention, colliding with traffic and being victims of casual crime. Our hotel was surrounded by concrete blocks, with armed guards searching vehicles picking up or dropping off guests. Also note that if we had been able to walk, there was nowhere within walking distance to go to.

Our observations, experiences, and the anxiety felt by our hosts in taking western women into the street concurred with a survey conducted by the Centre of Economic Research in Pakistan. This report states that nearly 30% of respondents considered it “extremely unsafe” for women to walk in their neighbourhood, and around 70% of male respondents discouraged “female family members from taking public wagon services” (Sajjad et al., 2017). Anand and Tiwari (2006) reflected that ‘the nature of the entire transportation system of the city is then not only insensitive to the needs of women, but also actively disables accessibility and induces poverty.” Seedat et. al., (2013) added that walking on poorly maintained roads or footpaths and avoiding vehicles in urban areas is stressful and tiring owing to environmental effects – overcrowding, temperature, humidity, and pollution.

Women’s mobility

Inadequate and unsafe transport provision and cultural restrictions on the use of transport modes means that women take more expensive and longer journeys than men. For example

  • Working men can use the bus, car, or motorbike. Women are socially forbidden to use motorbikes – a mode of transport favoured by men (Hoodbhoy, 2013) as wind through clothing may lead to female body shapes being revealed. They can sit side-saddle as a passenger, but do not have to wear a helmet, putting them in greater danger in crashes (Giure 4).
  • Only one-third of the seating on the few buses is allocated to women, and most prefer to avoid buses due to harassment issues. So, where possible, they spend more on on-demand transport services such as Careems.
  • Women’s travel at night is dangerous and socially unacceptable. Working late requires hiring an on-demand service or being accompanied home by a family member
  • Leisure and recreational trips are socially unacceptable. Permission may be denied, or chaperones required.

Many factors contribute to, and make, gender transport poverty in Pakistan a wicked problem. These include the male domination of the transport sector and the difficulties of gender mainstreaming; social, cultural and religious norms which inhibit women from working and entering the public realm; overall levels of transport poverty which effect all citizens of Lahore such as lack and quality of buses, lack of traffic regulations, poor safety and hygiene, lack of route coverage; and the requirements placed on women to be responsible for all household duties (even if they are in full-time employment). Together these increase the mobility challenges faced by women and reduce women’s equality, denying them access to health care, recreational facilities, and employment opportunities. These are systemic issues.


Gender transport poverty in Pakistan is a bi-product of entrenched gender inequality. Reducing this requires long term strategic, national goals with short, medium, and long-term plans aimed at reducing gender inequalities across Pakistan. Although transformational changes are slow, requiring changes in hearts, minds, and behaviours, they are not impossible. A recent example in the field of transport is the widescale, global embracing of sustainable forms of transport, which has buy-in from global corporations, investors, government, public, manufacturers, transport providers, and users.

Examining gender transport poverty as a wicked problem – as both a societal and transport system failure – enables system archetypes to be applied (also relevant to our example were eroding goals; seeking a wrong goal or something that is achievable while not tackling the larger problem; Acaroglu, 2017; ‘shifting the burden’ (putting the burden of change and improvement on someone else or another agency), ‘fixes that fail’ (solutions which fail to solve or improve the problem), and ‘limits to success’ (limitations that do not let allow interventions succeed; Braun, 2002), knowledge transfer system failures or successes in other domains (e.g., from conservation and sustainability programs) and the use of positive system archetypes.

In terms of the latter, the WEMOBILE team’s approach has led us to the conclusion that positive system archetypes relating to intensity to action (in which agents are motivated to take action for the collective good, e.g., in terms of support of sustainable transport, lift-sharing) and status quo disruption may be of value in the following ways:

Supporting intensity to action was found in:

  • A basic understanding of women’s mobility problems and willingness to talk about these publicly.
  • A willingness to try piecemeal solutions.
  • The effects of gender transport poverty on limiting the life opportunities of women and their contributions to household and national economies have been noted in other LMICs
  • Stakeholders from the public, private institutions, and NGOs are willing to support, contribute, and work towards improving mobility for women, but dialogic processes and iterative enquiry are lacking.

Status quo disruption in which transport and mobility become a ‘thought and practice’ leader for gender equality, can draw on:

  • Global trends in the field of transport are towards the development of accessible, usable, safe, inclusive, and joined up transport services. Tools (such the Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning Guidelines, Rupprecht Consult, 2019) have been developed to support local authorities to develop and deliver on transport master plan which succeed in attracting investment. These plans are built on the core need to understand the requirements of all users.
  • Global initiatives to improve gender equality, which includes access to opportunity, through improved transport and mobility
  • Evidence-based practice which shows the effectiveness of gender mainstreaming and gender action planning to improve organisational performance and reduce systemic inequalities and the development of useful tools to support this (e.g., Asian Development Bank, 2013; European Institute of Gender Equality resources).

In conclusion, the project has provided resources for designers and others to use to start thinking about the transport requirements and mobility needs of women in LMICs. In this, we have stressed the complex nature of women’s lives, the problems that access to adequate, safe transport may pose for them when balancing work and home life. We have demonstrated how qualitative research can be transformed into system maps and the value of these in understanding systems-level problems. Lastly, we have outlined opportunities for how gender innovations in the transport sector could leading disrupting the current status quo in terms of gender inequality in Pakistan.