Lessons From Gender-Blind Infrastructure

Gender-neutral, gender-blind, data bias, WPS, Urban Planning, infrastructure, systemic bias

“Urban planning that fails to account for women's risk of being sexually assaulted is a clear violation of women's equal right to public spaces...”

― Caroline Criado-Pérez, “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”

Urban planning and infrastructure may not seem like fields where gender plays a huge role, but it has a surprising amount of influence on our daily lives. We have a tendency to believe that “gender-neutral” approaches are fair and balanced, but that actually blinds us to the real impacts of our unconscious bias. We know this is the case in peace and security from our research and work. Redefining security means asking different questions. How does this apply to how cities are built? 

The urban planning and infrastructure fields are predominantly white, male fields and have largely shaped the literal environments where we live, work, and play. As a result, many of our daily realities exhibit large disparities in the ways we experience our surroundings, including but not limited to our commutes, how we interact with public spaces, crime and safety perceptions, and accessibility. Furthermore, as the quote above explains, when we take a “neutral” approach and fail to consider the disparate impacts that the same urban space has on men and women. We are, in fact, not taking a neutral approach but discriminating against women through not recognizing their experiences. 

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men is written by feminist advocate Caroline Criado Perez on the lack of gender representation in data collection across various fields. When half of the population is excluded from participating in decision-making, or even from consideration, you get dramatically different results; often disproportionately costing women their time, money, and, in many cases, their lives, compared to men. In essence, women become invisible when they are not included in a “gender-blind” approach. 

Ask any woman and they can share a personal story of how they felt unsafe while taking public transportation. Public transportation is designed to address the problem of mobility and congestion in dense, urban areas, while maintaining a level of affordability, speed, and reliability. One specific example is in how we design subway stations to be minimal and efficient, leading to inadequate lighting and unpopulated sections as you get farther away from the fare turnstile and station employees. In these environments, comparatively, men are less likely to be assaulted or harassed than women who use the same space. The point here is not to share crime statistics or recommend how to make public transportation safer, but to illustrate how excluding the perspectives and considerations of women can unintentionally lead to “neutral” systems being biased against women. 

To further illustrate this by example, consider how the suburbanization of American cities created a dependency on driving a car to accomplish most, if not all, of your daily activities. During the post-1945 era, the image of the typical American household of a man, his wife, and his children, was the basis for the urban planning that created the American style of suburban development around the urban cores. As the man was expected to work, and his wife to stay home to care for the household, the infrastructure came to reflect this expectation to allow the man to drive directly from his home to the office downtown in the form of highways. 

There was, and often still is, no consideration for any other transportation needs because the women and children would not “need” to drive anywhere. Women today are more likely than men to be responsible for picking up children, doing the shopping, or caring for other family members, women’s labor participation rates notwithstanding. This leads to disproportionate uses of time, gas, and energy by men and women, despite using the same infrastructure. 

In addition, because of the way commutes follow suburbanization patterns, wherein people drive from suburban residential areas to urban cores and back, mass transit lines tend to follow similar patterns of development called hub-and-spoke (for you transit enthusiasts). Transit lines tend to converge at a hub in the urban core with lines branching out in spokes to specific suburban residential areas, resembling the hub and spokes of a wheel. This means that in order to reach destinations that are not along the main commuter routes, you must take multiple, indirect bus or train lines to reach your final destination. While men tend to work in downtown areas in white-collar professions, women and people of color tend to live and/or work in ways that do not fit in these traditional commuting patterns. Again, this leads to disparate outcomes for different people because the system is designed without involving the whole population’s perspectives and consideration.

Accordingly, in the international peace and security field, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda affirms the need for meaningful integration of women’s perspectives and participation. We often assume that national security, traditional military dimensions, and peacebuilding are not gendered to begin with. This disconnect between our assumptions and the reality on the ground creates risk potentials to prolong conflict, disrupt stability, and sabotage peacebuilding efforts. For example, the popular imagination of a peace negotiation can justify an all-male negotiation team as being necessary and that demanding women be at the table is asking for too much. Research shows that it is not only fair and just, but it is also beneficial to society to include women and women’s organizations in peace negotiations because the resulting peace agreement is much more likely to last than agreements that did not include the perspectives of women. 

The traditional security lens is gender-blind and, at best, ignores the disparate impacts on women and girls, and at worst, reinforces those disparities. When the traditional security perspective is seen as transcending gender perspectives, we fail to take into account that the resulting peace can produce disparate outcomes for women and girls. We must, therefore, learn from our mistakes, from designing infrastructure to negotiating peace agreements, that the WPS agenda offers a concrete and proven path to greater peace and security. By including a gender analysis lens, the outcomes of peace processes are improved and more durable, creating a more secure future for both women and men.