Cities are largely designed by men, and for men. There is nothing unusual in this – we instinctively design, plan and make policy that reflects our own experiences and biases. However, this has led to places that don’t work as well for women as they should.
This has safety implications: clearly anyone who de-prioritises the importance of streetlights has never had to walk home in the dark worrying about the footsteps behind them, and while men are attacked and mugged as well, the danger to women is significantly greater. But even leaving that aside, there are numerous less well documented issues in cities that affect women.
And even simple things like cracked and crumbling pavements have a greater detrimental impact on women. The vast majority of people pushing either prams or wheelchairs are women, and while having to navigate a giant set of wheels around tree roots and potholes is unpleasant enough for the person being pushed, getting around shouldn’t have to be the daily equivalent of Ninja Warrior.
The perpetual closure of public toilets affects women more than men. The fact that women are still most likely to be carers – let’s not forget that less than 2 per cent of men have taken the option of shared parental leave – means that public access to toilets becomes an issue that disproportionately affects women. It makes it difficult to leave the house if you don’t know where you will be able to access changing facilities. Reducing amenities like these ends up confining women to their homes or places they know will be convenient.
This is why we need more women at senior levels of local government, to improve the standard of our places for women. So for International Women’s Day, NLGN has made a series of films about the experiences of women in local government. And, in particular, we looked at the issue of why diversity is important.
As councillor Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds city council, said in one our films: “Too many areas of policy covered by local government are male dominated – infrastructure, highways, planning… The most important thing is to put women in positions of responsibility in those areas, leading by example, reflecting the needs of their communities, and making a difference.”
And while there are a huge number of women working in local government, reaching the senior levels of management is still much rarer than it should be. But council workplaces are becoming more open and less hierarchical, there is a greater allowance for flexible working, and many women who do reach the top are keen to mentor and support those at the beginning of their careers.
It is crucial that local government does what it can to support women in their careers, at all stages and levels of seniority. Until we have senior management that is representative of the area it creates policy for, our places won’t improve in the ways that they need to.
Claire Porter is head of external affair at NLGN. The three films are available on the NLGN YouTube channel.