Out of service: how urban neighbourhoods fail to provide for women

Women often bear the brunt of family care responsibilities. Often this requires “trip-chaining”. Stops for groceries, prescriptions, cash at the bank, childcare, school and a myriad of other daily chores are part of the same journey. They should also be able to access fast internet connections to work in remote jobs and operate online businesses that provide the flexibility they need to manage their competing priorities. Access to these services is critical, but are they available where women most need them?

What about the windy city?

Our work in Chicago show that women heads of family households outnumber men in several neighbourhoods across the city’s south and west side. It also shows that these neighbourhoods are underserved by banks, pharmacies, grocery stores and by digital resources. This puts residents – and women in particular – at a disadvantage in their daily lives, jobs and careers.

The maps below show the areas in Chicago where women heads of family households are concentrated. The map on the left shows the areas where they constitute the majority of family heads of households. The map on the right shows the distribution of women by population counts. The areas where women constitute the majority as heads of family households are concentrated on the far west and throughout the south sides of Chicago. Areas where there are large numbers of women as heads of family households radiate out from these majority neighbourhoods.

Families headed by females by census tract in Chicago

The next series of maps show the distribution of three essential services: pharmacies, grocery stores and banks. The bank maps are divided into three subregions in order to mitigate the effect of the high concentration of banks in Chicago’s central business district. What we see is that these services are concentrated some way away from where women-led households most need them.

Distribution of three essential services

Digital gender gaps

Our work also shows that women heads of family households are at a significant disadvantage with respect to the opportunity to compete in the digital workplace. Below is the Digital Divide Index (DDI) for the City of Chicago (the City and its community areas are outlined in red) and the surrounding area of Cook County. We see that the areas where women heads of family households are concentrated are also places with the highest DDI score, i.e., places with the greatest digital gap. This is true where women are the majority as well as where we otherwise see large raw population counts as heads of family households.

2020 Digital Divide Index (DDI) in County County, Illinois by Census Tract

As we see it, women heads of family households are not well served by key services in the neighbourhoods where they live. We expect that other key services, such as childcare and healthcare are out of reach for these women. This bears further examination.

Second, we need to determine that there are spatial barriers to jobs, job training, and meaningful career opportunities. The data on the digital economy certainly raises concerns as to whether remote work is a realistic strategy without significant new investment in infrastructure and supporting resources.

Third, our experience with Chicago tells us that race and wealth play roles in these results. It is no coincidence that the west- and south-side neighbourhoods where women heads of family households are dominant, are also underinvested and racially segregated as African American or Black. We need to examine this and other socio-economic characteristics.

Fourth, where there are challenges, there are also possible opportunities. The collective buying power of women and their demand for services may constitute an unrecognised market. In addition, the lived experiences of women who share many kinds of responsibilities and challenges may be the bases for various kinds of co-operative ventures and business collaborations. These opportunities can encourage new investments as well as serve as engines for entrepreneurship and economic growth.

Access all areas

This array of issues and opportunities demands a policy response that is both systemic and systematic. Improving the number of banks alone within a community can address the needs of households. All services supported transportation resources circulating within communities and that also connect them to larger metro area need to be present and accessible. Jobs need to be nearby so that each day a mother can work and take care of her children.

Effective policy solutions that are centered on community-based, environmental and economic outcomes address the intersections of all these factors. In addition, a principle source of these solutions are the women who live and work as the heads of and providers for their families. Policies and programmes need to be driven from the ground up. To that end, many gaps in services and community resources can be filled through the entrepreneurship and ingenuity of women who are already invested in their communities and families. To do so, they require access to capital and the support of a robust entrepreneurship ecosystem.


Contributing to this project: Daryl Dukes, Pauline Hong, and Phoebe Lind

Read more on the OECD work on Regions and Cities

President at Institute for Work and the Economy | Website | + posts

Peter A. Creticos, Ph.D., is President and Founder of the Institute for Work and the Economy, a Chicago-based policy collaborative in workforce and economic development. Since its inception in 2000, the Institute has been an important source of ideas and proposed actions addressing knotty workforce and economic challenges. The Institute is governed by a 20-member board of directors from business, academia, organized labor and civic organizations. The board’s great diversity in lived experiences is central to the Institute’s mission and inclusive vision.

Urban geographer | + posts

Evan is a GIS analyst and urban geographer based in Dublin, Ireland. Evan is an alumnus of DePaul University in Chicago and is currently a postgraduate student at University College Dublin where he is researching the effects of COVID lockdowns on urban spaces. He also recently established his own GIS consultancy known as Oceanic Maps and GIS Services. His interests include travelling, linguistics, music, cooking, dogs, and being involved in local community planning.