Let’s #BreakTheBias in the built environment this International Women’s Day

The International Women’s Day website says “Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.”

My daughter was right to ask. We shouldn’t have to have International Women’s Day. But the reality is, there is still an incredible amount of bias in society towards women. In the context of the built environment, this is indeed true. There are two sides to this that need to be addressed; those who design shapes and those who can shape places.

Representation in the sector

We still witness a bias in the careers young women believe they can succeed in. More years ago than I care to remember, I was told by my college vice chair that, as a girl from Liverpool, I could never be an architect and should do interior design ‘and make cushions’ instead. Great strides have been made since then, but we do still bear witness to stereotypes being reinforced by education professionals and those working in the sector.

Recently, I attended an event about social value in the built environment in which people shared fantastic school and community training programmes about construction and built environment. I was shocked when a senior individual (who I’ll not name) said: “It is great to see what you’re doing to give opportunities to boys. But what about girls? What opportunities are there for them?” In other words, construction isn’t a job for them. In 2022, from a senior employee, this isn’t acceptable.

Things are changing, as reflected in data published by the Architects Registration Board (ARB). In 2018, ARB found that women overall account for just 28% of registered architects. In 2011, ARB recorded a female share of 20%, and in 2003 just 14%. Positively, there are signs that the speed of change is increasing. The gender split produced by ARB for those under 30 shows 52% male and 48% female. However, women are not being retained to reach more senior roles, gender pay gaps still exist, and women often still feel uncomfortably in the minority whilst in practice, at design team meetings, or on construction sites. Significant changes still need to be made to ensure fairness and equality across all aspects of the profession.

We are blessed to have some incredible women in our network who have successful careers in the sector — from architecture to construction — who are really driving change. But we need to keep pushing for women to be at all levels and across all disciplines to impact directly on the design of spaces that we have.

Representational voices

Whilst there is change, many of our public spaces are designed with a heavily male influence, leading to design decisions that don’t always reflect the needs of those using them. Whilst more women are working in the sector today, we are working within a context of places historically designed by men, often with few women involved.

This presents challenges. For example, often the primary carers, women more often face the challenges of pushing prams or supporting older family members in moving around places. Safety in public spaces is also a big concern, as highlighted by one of our PLACED Academy graduates; “I don’t feel safe enough to go to town on my own. You shouldn’t feel unsafe just because you’re a woman or child.” In the media, more women are speaking out about their experiences. According to a UN Women UK survey in 2021, 80% of women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. These issues are not unique to women by any means, but this needs to change. All people deserve to be empowered not to live in fear.

How can our spaces be inclusive of women of all ages, if female voices are still not heard enough? If the design of places is not truly shaped by people who represent the communities who live there, how can we possibly create places that work for all?

As well as increasing representation amongst those working in the sector, we need to be focusing on involving girls and women more in the discussion about the design of spaces, asking how they feel about the spaces and what they would change. We also need to empower girls and women to understand the challenges they face, believe that what they have to say is valid and provide opportunities for them to be heard.

What are we doing?

At PLACED we argue it is critical that more diverse voices are heard and respected in the decision-making process. We are passionate about youth empowerment and increasing citizenship through actively enabling young people to contribute to the design of towns and cities, and see supporting those under-represented in the built environment in accessing the sector as a priority, including young women, ethnic minority communities and those from under-privileged areas

A key part of our work is education work is our flagship programme, the PLACED Academy. We established the PLACED Academy in 2019 as a free to access creative programme about the built environment for 14–18 year olds. The Academy empowers young people to shape the places they live, work and spend time whilst increasing their self-esteem, breaking down barriers to professional careers, and developing a broad range of skills.

59% of our Academy graduates our women. The programme gives them a unique opportunity to work with many of our inspirational female built environment professionals. The incredible support they get from working with architects, construction professionals, planners, policy makers and business leaders is invaluable. Providing opportunities for them to work alongside role models that they can relate to, who they feel comfortable in asking questions to and getting honest answers, and strengthening their belief that they can make a difference is an important part of what we do.

We are excited to see what those young women who have taken part in the Academy will achieve. We know they will do great things, and we hope they too will advocate for more girls and women’s voices to be part of the discussion. Perhaps in future, we won’t need an International Women’s Day. Perhaps we can just choose to have one, to celebrate wonderful female talents, contributions and change makers.

In the meantime, thank you to all those women who are role models for the future young women. You’re inspirational.

Whilst you’re here…

We’re currently looking for sponsorship to enable us to deliver the 2022 Academy. Find out more here.

Jo Harrop
PLACED Director and Founder
#betterplacestogether

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