The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Urban prosperity doesn't automatically mean gender equality

While there is a strong relationship between increasing urbanisation and increasing prosperity, it cannot be assumed that gender inequalities are reduced at the same time. In several spheres of urban life such as labour, education and transport, urbanisation may have contradictory effects for women and girls.

Sylvia Chant and Kerwin Datu

Sylvia Chant and Kerwin Datu

Cities: Nairobi

Topics: Labour and livelihoods, Poverty and inequality, Gender, Youth and education

The 'prosperity of cities' has become a growing focus in development circles, underscored in Richard Florida's (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, the Commission on Growth and Development's (2008) Cities: Engines of Growth and Prosperity for Developing Countries?, the World Bank's World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography, and Ed Glaeser's (2011) The Triumph of the City, and next year is set to be the theme for UN-HABITAT's State of the World's Cities Report 2012-13.

In its concept note for this report, UN-HABITAT proposes that 'it is … in cities that societal progress such as the advancement of women and increasing levels of gender equality takes place'. Yet the evidence suggests that there are no automatic or unilateral shifts in this direction, and that gender inequality and barriers to female 'empowerment' remain widespread in urban environments. Just as we cannot assume that wealth inevitably trickles down from the rich to the poor, nor can we assume that economic prosperity in cities automatically implies fairer shares of resources between women and men.

At a broad regional level, we can observe a general correlation between income and levels of urbanisation. However, relationships of these measures with key gender equality indices are far from obvious, as shown in the table below:

Gender And Urban Prosperity

Gross National Income per capita, poverty, urbanisation and gender inequality in different developing regions, ranked from highest to lowest performance. LA = Latin America, MENA = Middle East and North Africa, EA = East Asia, SSA = Sub-Saharan Africa, SA = South Asia.

Women contribute significantly to the 'prosperity of cities', providing essential services, provisioning households, and enhancing the quality of life in their homes and communities. However, they are often the last to benefit in respect of 'decent work', equal pay, tenure rights, access to and accumulation of assets, personal safety, political representation and so on. Just as women's contributions to urban prosperity are frequently unpaid or underpaid, so too are their rewards.

To understand how gender inequality persists in prospering cities requires a multidimensional and multiscalar approach. Analysis of gender relations and disparities must be conducted through at least the following six dimensions:

Analysis must be conducted in different spaces and scales, from the household and the neighbourhood, to the workplace, to transport and intra-urban movement, to the city and the state. In its 2010 report Combating Poverty and Inequality, Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development noted that:

'the relationship between poverty and gender is complex because it is placed at the intersection of at least three sets of institutions: labour markets, which differentially structure and reward female labour; households, where decisions are made about the allocation and distribution of resources, including labour and earnings, and where labour itself is (re)produced; and states, which through a constantly changing mix of regulatory and provisioning roles, change the broader policy environment within which the other two institutions operate.' [Our emphasis]

We now explore some of the current findings within these dimensions to illustrate the diversity of analyses required.

Demographics - in many developing urban areas fertility rates and the incidence of early pregnancy and marriage are often higher in slums than in non-slum areas, due to lack of information on reproductive health, unmet needs for family planning, and other factors. This is often associated with early school drop-out among girls, which clearly plays a part in perpetuating gender gaps in urban prosperity. The ability of women to exert control over their fertility may be mediated by disparities between their own age and economic status and those of male partners on whom they often rely for support. In the context of demographic ageing women are also predominantly in the frontline of unpaid care provision for elderly people and the infirm.

Labour - one of the most powerful ways to understand inequality is through the gender division of labour. Although women across the world are increasingly engaged in 'productive', income-generating work, this remains primarily a 'male domain', both normatively and pragmatically.

Human capital - apart from cultural expectations that may frustrate girls' access to schooling and training, access may also be impeded as a result of other family members' employment or educational activities. For example when mothers work, their daughters often have to assume greater shares of 'reproductive' labour which may provoke absenteeism from school or early drop-out, thereby inhibiting their own accumulation of human capital.

Physical and financial capital - in most parts of the world women's access to land and property is compromised through male-biased inheritance, discriminatory titling procedures, female disenfranchisement on death or desertion by spouses, or separation and divorce, and male control of property even where it is women who possess the legal or customary entitlements, and/or where women themselves are involved in building and improving housing stock. The location and quality of land and housing can exert major effects on the lives of women given the disproportionate time they spend in the home in their roles as primary providers of domestic labour and unpaid carework.

Space, mobility and connectivity - women are often much more constrained than men in terms of their physical access to urban space, not only as a result of the association of 'reproductive' labour with the home, which impinges upon the time and ability to engage in extra-domestic activity, but because of strong symbolic dimensions surrounding the 'forbidden' and 'permitted' use of private and public spaces governed by patriarchal power relations and norms of female propriety.

The burden on women includes the need to 'piece together' activities separated in urban space relating to shopping, childcare, employment and so on. The work of time-space harmonisation is itself unpaid, adding support to the assertion made by Manuel Castells as far back as 1978 in City, Class and Power that women's non-remunerated labour is vital to the functioning of cities.

'It is the subordinate role of women which enables the minimal 'maintenance' of [the city's] housing, transport and public facilities. In the end, if the system still 'works' it is because women guarantee unpaid transportation (movement of people and merchandise), because they repair their homes, because they make meals when there are no canteens, because they spend more time shopping around, because they look after others' children when there are no nurseries and because they offer 'free entertainment' to the producers when there is a social vacuum and an absence of cultural creativity. If these women who 'do nothing' ever stopped to do 'only that', the whole urban structure as we know it would become completely incapable of maintaining its function.'

Public transportation designs often assume male labour patterns, prioritising travel from peri-urban areas to city centres during 'peak hours'. This ignores women's requirements for travel to less formal work in non-centralised zones or during non-peak times, and for multi-purpose, multi-stop journeys to complete all the miscellaneous errands that provisioning the home requires.

The use of mobile phones by families to connect with their daughters is a means to protect women, such as those working on nightshifts in burgeoning international call centres, or those who have migrated to the city alone from rural areas. However this does not necessarily transform gender. Recognising that migration can reinforce as well as challenge gender roles and relations, it is important to note that mobile telephony may subject female migrants to greater monitoring and surveillance, and place them in a position where they are less able to resist economic and other demands from their kin.

Power and rights - some improvements have been made in women holding seats in national parliaments in the past decade, even if they remain sorely underrepresented in developed and developing countries alike. In only 23 countries of the world, for example, do women comprise over 30 per cent of the lower or single house of national parliament, and at ministerial levels, gender gaps rise dramatically. Moreover, recent research shows that female politicians often only last single terms due to unrealistic expectations on their time and because they are prone to criticism and discrimination.

Although similar constraints apply to women at the grassroots, their mobilisation for rights to housing, services and infrastructure, and political voice and representation, is rising the world over, offering a glimpse of hope for greater gender equality in urban futures.

Sylvia Chant is Professor of Development Geography at the London School of Economics and an adviser to The Global Urbanist.