Gender perspectives on building design and operation; what does ‘designing a building with women in mind’ actually look like?
March 8th is a special day for everyone – not just for women – to acknowledge the incredible strides being made and highlight the continued hinderances to gender equality. This International Women’s Day, I’d like to consider the practical ways in which we can bring gender into the conversation about our sustainable built environment.
It can be an uncomfortable conversation, because we’d like to think we are conscious of gender bias and the days of inequality are in the past. But still, there is little in our fast-changing world that is not linked to gender. And on the flip side, there is little in our world that is not linked to our built environment.
Our cities, towns and buildings within them are broadly shaped by our experiences attached to gender. People of different genders may experience a late-night commute home down poorly lit streets differently due to disparities in vulnerability. Gender also plays a factor in how we choose to travel through our cities. For example, use of cycling routes in the UK is hugely gender-skewed towards men, with studies1 showing that women prefer to cycle on safer cycle paths that are protected from the road. Despite London’s Cycleways2 transforming bike routes in the capital, many cycle lanes in the UK are still deemed ‘unsafe’, are used less by women and are therefore exacerbating existing access and health inequalities. Experiences are of course different for every person identifying as a woman. But still, gender imbalance in the built environment sector has meant our cities were designed through a male lens.
While the prospect of being treated equally dangles in the foreground, what lies behind it is being mindful of the differences. Catering for these differences allows for equity and inclusivity to be created. When it comes to buildings, designing for inclusivity is not a new concept and many aspects can be found in national building codes. Inclusive design is also featured as a component of the World Green Building Council’s (WGBC) Health & Wellbeing Building Framework3, which suggests we should plan for access and use by as many people as possible, considering disability, age, and also gender.
In that case, considering gender perspectives, what does ‘designing a building with women in mind’ actually look like?
- Safe spaces – lighting at entrances and in outdoor spaces around buildings after dark contributes both to the increased perception of safety and the actual reduction of crime. Designing more open outdoor spaces, with fewer dark places and corners, also increases visibility. In a world where women are advised to cover their drink on the dancefloor, safety plays a consistent part in the average woman’s choice of behaviours. Studies4 show this is a main contributor to the reason why women globally walk disproportionately fewer steps each day than men. Light up building fronts, remove the dark hiding spots and help to create safer spaces.
- Accessible routes – from entering a site to arriving at a building’s top floor, the ease at which people can move around depends on how accessibility has been designed in. Routes designed for people with limited physical ability should also be mindful of carers who may be walking with a pram or with someone who is in a wheelchair. Around the world today, socially assigned gender roles means that women are typically more likely to be in caring positions for children and adults5, causing them to be disproportionally affected by buildings with inaccessible features. Issues can be avoided by thinking about access plans throughout the entire visitor experience6, integrating design features like ramps at every level change, automatic doors, designated car park spaces for those with pushchairs or with mobility issues, and clear and even pedestrian pathways.
- Equitable loos – for many physiological and cultural reasons, women spend more time and take more frequent visits to the bathroom than men. Reasons for this include pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding, or requiring nappy-changing facilities. It also takes longer when using a cubicle, and even more so for the elderly, who are disproportionately female. Allocation of toilet facilities in buildings should be proportioned with this in mind. Accessible facilities should also include upgrades to the Changing Places7 standard, incorporating adult changing tables, screens and more space for carers.
- Lactation rooms – the highest scoring point on the scorecard of the healthy building certification Fitwel8 is the inclusion of dedicated lactation rooms. These dedicated spaces, incorporating an electrical outlet, seating, a table, a sink and a fridge, allow breastfeeding mothers to have a private, comfortable and hygienic space to pump, which can contribute to improved mental and physical health outcomes for mothers. It is arguably the most equitable feature within a building, giving breastfeeding women the option to return to the workplace with one less thing to worry about.
The WGBC’s Health & Wellbeing Building Framework recommends how we, as built environment professionals, should ensure inclusivity is integrated throughout the building lifecycle. Design strategies should incorporate dedicated populations (e.g. women, elderly, disabled), and potential users should be involved and consulted as early as possible to help identify barriers to inclusion. Throughout operation, a culture of accessibility should be created through physical environments, as well as social and attitudinal factors that can result from well-integrated company policies to support diversity.