Women & the Built Environment

Historically, women have been left out of data. In healthcare, in education, in manufacturing, and the built environment. Caroline Criado Perez, in her book, ‘Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men’, explores what it means for women to live in a world designed with men in mind – from phones that are too large for women’s hands, or that women are 47% more likely to be injured in car accidents because seat belts are designed for men. Criado Perez was prompted to write this book since she discovered that what we assume are universal heart attack symptoms are actually the symptoms for men. Women experience different heart attack symptoms than men and are therefore less likely to know they are having heart attacks.

Criado Perez states that data collection is practiced in all industries, and then used as a basis for future projects, but the so called ‘universal’ data isn’t universal at all. Most of the world’s historical data does not include women, leaving a clear path for the “male-default” to arise.

It may be easy to assume that minute details within urban planning, designing, and building wouldn’t affect women as much as they do, but when grouped together, they create a larger gender disparity issue within the built environment.

Inadvertent gender bias

If proposals come forward for a large housing estate, that happens to obstruct a pedestrian pathway, how could that impact women more than men? It all comes down to the differences in the way men and women travel.

Criado Perez states that women are more likely to walk, but not only are they more likely to walk, they are more likely to be pushing prams, be accompanied by a child, or be carrying shopping. Therefore, it is inevitable that a woman would be more affected by inadequate pedestrian access routes.

‘Invisible Women’ details the gender data gap across many sectors, but the first chapter of the book focuses on how the gap affects women in relation to the built environment. It was Karlskoga in Sweden that inspired the first chapter, as their snow clearing schedule inadvertently favoured men, by clearing the roads first, and walkways and cycle paths last. By leaving the walkways and cycle paths to last, the women of Karlskoga, who were more likely to walk, were disproportionately affected. Criado Perez writes: “They didn’t deliberately set out to exclude women. They just didn’t think about them.”

Zoning Laws

In her book, Criado Perez discusses bias planning policies and laws with Ines Sanchez de Madariaga, Professor of Urban Planning at Madrid’s Technical University.  Sanchez de Madariaga detailed the use of global zoning laws, which prioritise the needs of a man, reinforcing the notion that a home is mostly a place for leisure, and that work, and home are completely separate.

In a 2018 article called ‘Sexism and the city: how urban planning has failed women’ authors Dorina Pojani, Dorothy Wardale and Kerry Brown discuss “zoned” cities. These cities have separated shopping, entertainment, work, and housing and placed them in distant locations.

The article notes that this results in isolated residential areas. Residential area number 1, made for families, have roads as major access routes and host homes that are unaffordable for a single woman. This in turn, drives single women to residential area number 2, which is made up of “miniscule flats in high rises.”, resulting in them experiencing a worse quality of life.

In The Atlantic article ‘Most women still don’t have a room of their own’ Divya Subramanian discusses how Covid-19 challenged “one of the most basic structures of life for the past two centuries: the separation between home and workplace.”

Subramanian discusses working from home and how it has tested the boundaries between leisure and work, whilst reinforcing existing binaries. In the article, it is stated that according to a Lendingtree survey 60% of men are more likely than women to have a home office. Alongside this, Subramanian says the average home is not usually built to accommodate one office, let alone two.  Therefore, in a home where both a man and a woman were forced to work from home, the man would often be prioritised.

“The Human Scale”

In an interview with evoke, Criado Perez spoke of Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s “human scale” for architecture that would be universally applicable. His version of “human” was a six-foot man with his arm raised.

Le Corbusier’s “human scale” would “go on to shape the entire post-war world, dictating everything from the height of a door handle to the scale of a staircase, all governed by the need to make everything as convenient as possible for this 6ft-tall ideal man” said Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian.

Working in the built environment as a woman

The 2020 RTPI research paper ‘Women and Planning’ sought to understand the barriers that women still face when it comes to working in the built environment. A 2017 survey carried out by RTPI found that “20% of women working in planning have faced and are sometimes still facing – gender related barriers to their professional advancement.”

There were many key insights from the research paper. Over 50% of the women surveyed felt their opportunities for promotion are limited because of their gender, and that discriminatory behaviour is just as likely to come from the younger generation of male planners as it is the older generation.

In a 2014 Guardian article titled “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like? Susanna Rustin wrote: “There are places in which women- and children, old people, people who belong to ethnic or sexual minorities, and people with disabilities – are enabled to thrive and included in the decision-making processes. There are vastly more places where they are not.”

Having worked in a women-led built environment team for the past 6 months, it is clear to me that representation of women in the industry has improved and continues to improve. However, I still believe that the gender bias is prevalent, especially within the data that underpins the built environment, and it’s going to be a while before the industry is able to progress with the needs of both men and women equally considered.

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