Gender bias in the built environment: why improving representation is only the beginning.
The term ‘it’s a man’s world’ highlights – in an extremely compact fashion – how the fundamental fabric of our society has been designed by men to the advantage for men. For International Women’s Day’s theme this year is #BreakTheBias. With this in mind, let’s explore the role gender bias plays within the urban design, property and planning sectors – and what this means for you.
In 2020, only 10% of the highest-ranking positions at the world’s top architecture and urban planning firms were held by women. Now, it is no secret that this sector has always been male dominated, but the extent to which this dominance is still present in current society (with little improvement) can feel like a demoralising concept to those who are considered ‘other’, echoing that sometimes overwhelming feeling of this really is a man’s world.
The direct consequence of this male dominance is that urban areas and public spaces do not tend to accommodate for women or marginalised groups because their voices and needs have been frequently excluded from the development process. Think narrow paths and limited street lighting. These are aspects which dominate women’s thoughts when walking alone in the evening – they don’t even get a second thought by men.
This isn’t to say that all sectors that are predominately male are going out of their way to exclude women in terms of their needs and perspectives, but it’s clear that this set-up is far more likely to lead to the ‘gender-neutral’ approach. This approach works off the – often subconscious – assumption that everyone has the same universal experiences within society, irrespective of sex or gender. So, this not only means that intersectional and individual needs that are not considered “the norm”, are often disregarded, but in actuality, what is considered the universal ‘gender-neutral’ experience is almost always based off the male experience, immediately neglecting half of the human population.
This generalised assumption of the universal experience that heavily leans towards a male bias is exceptionally articulated in Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. The book refers to this concept as the “male-default” or “male-unless-otherwise-indicated” approach. This socially ingrained way of thinking (or lack thereof) is both a cause and consequence of the gender data gap that has regularly seen women’s data failed to be collected or separated from men’s in order to identify potential differing trends or impacts as a result of gender. In a world where we rely on data to inform and justify our actions, the stakes are increasingly higher with this crucial knowledge gap.
The property, design and planning sector is a strong example of where this lack of accommodation groups can have serious consequences. Design of public spaces that lack inclusivity and wider consideration to the “non-default” members of society play a role in heightening the feelings of vulnerability of these groups, surrounding issues like gender-based violence, restricted accessibility and mobility to travel.
To make positive steps, it is important to acknowledge how experience and perspective are viable sources of knowledge and information. When voices of women and marginalised groups are left out of the decision-making processes, this is a prime example of the gender data gap in action. Ensuring more women and marginalised groups are being seen, heard and valued will, in turn, improve the design of public spaces. In particular, including women who experience multiple forms of intersectional discrimination should be a significant priority.
Simply improving the sector’s gender balance statistics up to representative figures (including across senior leadership positions) isn’t the finite solution to tackling this way of thinking that has been present within society for millennia, it is merely the beginning.
The adoption of a pro-women and pro-marginalised group attitude is what is necessary to create spaces that truly value and serve the needs of everyone. This cannot be achieved by representation alone; it requires a shift in perspective and awareness from all placemakers to seek genuine inclusivity and prioritise those routinely disregarded through the universal or gender-neutral lens.
Embracing and valuing diversity within all aspects of urban design and planning in order to tackle sexism and gender bias within the sector, improve the way public spaces operate and create gender-inclusive places is in everyone’s interest. When the most vulnerable in society are prioritised and protected, it is of everyone’s benefit. No matter your identity.