Sexism and the city: are buildings and cities sexist?

Posted on: 28 February, 2024

It’s not just in employee demographics that the built environment is short of female representation – it’s in the planning and designs of our buildings and cities, too.

It’s a well-known fact that women are underrepresented in the built environment. Across industries like real estate, surveying and construction, female professionals are a significant minority, despite accounting for roughly half of the population in the UK. In construction, just 14% of professionals are female and, according to CIOB, only 2% of these professionals actually work on site.

However, the question of how these industries can better represent women goes beyond employment – it’s also an issue embedded into the very products of the built environment.

From buildings and public spaces to the cities and infrastructure we inhabit every day, the built environment reflects the lives, experiences and perceptions of the people involved in their designing, planning, and construction. And in this regard, many believe that our sector is failing women.

Can buildings and cities be sexist?

It might sound like an odd question at first, but it’s worth investigating.

As a traditionally male field, the entire building lifecycle has been governed and dictated by men. This, significantly, includes the stages of design and planning.

Urban planning and architecture are no exceptions from male domination, with research from Zippia finding that only a third (33.4%) of urban planners and just under a quarter of architects (23.3%) are women. What results from this are structures, be they homes, alleyways, urban spaces or entire cities, which don’t reflect the diverse needs and experiences of modern populations.

One famous talking point used to criticise modern architecture is the depiction of skyscrapers and towers as ‘phallic’ and ‘reflections of gender-based discrimination’. However, the practical reality of gender bias can actually have a significant impact on the lives and even the physical safety of women.

Here are several ways gender-biased design impacts women:

Cities and public spaces aren’t designed with women’s safety in mind

According to one study of 800 female respondents, 62% fear using public spaces and constantly evaluate their surroundings, with 10% even going as far as changing their jobs because of their perception of public spaces. This data, along with recent high-profile cases in the news, illustrate the systemic level of violence and harassment women are subjected to in our cities and public environments.

While addressing the normalisation of these behaviours at a cultural level are part of addressing this problem, the designing and planning of the built environment can also play an important role.

Cities and public spaces that are designed and planned without female involvement fail to recognise and address the needs and concerns of women. For instance, well-lit pathways and open spaces with sightlines, passive surveillance and improved access to public transport can create environments where women feel safer and place them at significantly less risk of violence.

As Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City, notes:

“There is a predominantly male perspective on how the city works or should work. Even if it’s unconscious or unintentional, the result is that cities have been set up to serve men’s roles and women’s lives and experiences have been an afterthought at best.”

‘Zoned’ cities don’t reflect female travel patterns

Zoning is an urban planning method that is increasingly being adopted in the UK, whereby municipalities divide land into separate ‘zones’, each with different sets of regulations for development. As a result, work, shopping and housing locations are increasingly separated into different locations.

Research has found that women and men have different travel patterns, with women often ‘trip-chaining’ – engaging on longer trips that combine multiple activities, from dropping off children to going to work and going shopping. Overall, women make 50% more stops than men on the way home from work, according to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, presenting significant time and cost barriers for them.

Zoned cities and environments (particularly housing and transportation methods) aren’t conducive to these patterns, meaning women have to make longer, more complex and more costly journeys. Our transit systems have favoured single and return journeys (typically used by men), meaning the needs, roles and responsibilities of women – who are also more likely to use public transport than men – aren’t being catered to.

In terms of design, transit systems and public spaces also fail to account for the needs of women, too. The fact that most public transportation isn’t designed to house a pushchair is just one example of this.

High costs of housing prevent women from leaving abusive situations

The housing crisis is a significant issue – not just in the UK but on an international scale. Houses aren’t being built fast enough to meet demand and, once they are, they’re increasingly out of reach for most people’s finances.

Women – particularly single mothers and victims of abuse – are one group disproportionately affected by this. The growing costs of owning and renting a home can make it financially unviable for a victim of abuse to leave their situation and enter a new property, while for single mothers, catchment and proximity to a child’s school can price them out of being able to rent or purchase a suitable home. Mixed-use developments, whereby buildings are created with multiple purposes, are one solution that has been proposed to solve spiralling housing costs.

Learn more: Are mixed-use developments the future of construction?

What can the built environment do to address this?

Like many issues of representation in our sector, there’s no straight-forward, fix-all solution to gender-biased design. Instead, the built environment needs to take action across several different levels:

Encourage more women to pursue urban planning and architecture careers

The most obvious way to ensure women’s experiences are reflected in the built environment is to increase their representation in the field. As the sector works to improve its diversity and inclusivity, urban and town planning and architecture are engaging and rewarding fields that should receive greater awareness and exposure. This, in turn, can help us imagine new ways of organising, planning and structuring our cities, buildings and public spaces.

Learn more: How higher education can encourage and support more women into the built environment

Bring more women into senior roles and decision-making

Alongside the practices and vocations that contribute to design and planning, women should be more involved at the decision-making level. There’s significant ground to make up here – according to a Randstand survey of over 4,200 female construction professionals, over half had never worked for a female manager – but placing more women in influential and senior positions can help influence policy and ensure the lived experiences of women are better reflected across the entire building lifecycle.

Planners should consult and collaborate with women

A less institutional and perhaps more simple solution is to make sure more women are consulted in the planning and design processes. From a design perspective, it’s logical to consult the people who will end up living and inhabiting these environments when designing or planning a new urban space or building. Running co-creation workshops that encourage input from different stakeholders – including women – can help ensure the experiences and needs of diverse groups are reflected in the final design and construction.

Urban planning has a pivotal role in the creation of our cities, communities and environments. If you want to play a key role in the future of sustainable development, UCEM’s MSc Urban Planning will give you the knowledge, skills and technical understanding you need to launch or further your career.

Find out more: MSc Urban Planning – University College of Estate Management