The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is that everyone can help create a gender equal world. So what can infrastructure engineers do to improve and empower the lives of girls and women, asks Kimberley Green, Mott MacDonald’s regional practice leader for social inclusion.
There are many ways towns and cities can be more gender inclusive. It requires the needs of girls and women to be placed at the centre of planning, design and delivery of transport networks, public spaces, and other hard and soft infrastructure projects.
Historically, default infrastructure designs have tended to suit male commuters, residents and consumers. The provision of street lighting to improve public safety, for instance, has been considered less important from a male perspective compared to a female one.
To inform design through a socially inclusive lens, women must have a seat at the decision-making table, contributing to discussions and influencing designs.
This calls for not just more women in technical and leadership positions within the civil engineering and infrastructure sector, but greater diversity on project teams, more women-led firms in supply chains and more women in policy-making roles.
There must also be greater consultation with female end-users who should ultimately benefit from new infrastructure.
A roadmap to equality
At the start of a project, developers and engineers need to identify the desired outcomes to address gender inequality and other social inclusion challenges. These aims should be embedded into action plans to create a roadmap that guides thinking and planning before and while the asset is being developed.
The first step is to build a relationship with the community that empowers women to voice the challenges they face, and how they want infrastructure to help them overcome these challenges and realise their aspirations.
There are several best practice methods – such as community baselining, gender equality audits, and the establishment of gender and inclusion consultative groups – that can be employed to identify and capture information on gender-specific issues.
Progress on meeting gender and inclusion goals needs to be tracked throughout the project lifecycle. This involves measuring metrics and KPIs, such as how many jobs construction work has created for women, both entry level and in more technical leadership positions.
It also means keeping strong feedback loops by maintaining established consultation groups, going back to them periodically, and using the feedback to refine and improve infrastructure.
Closing the data gap
Data is key. As Melinda Gates said: “We can’t close the gender gap without closing the data gap.”
In fragile and developing countries, there is a dearth of gender-disaggregated data available for project planners to use, while collecting data at a local level can be challenging in many geographical contexts.
Digital technologies and the proliferation of mobile phone networks are offering new, practical and cost-effective ways to collect data from communities in remote, hard-to-reach locations who are often unable to travel into cities to take part in focus groups or meetings.
As I have seen for myself in Ghana, intermediaries equipped with smartphones or tablets can go out to these communities, conduct interviews and hold discussions, and bring back valuable data that can be used to inform designs and interventions.
The business case
Gender equality is crucial to alleviating poverty and building sustainable societies. And it makes good business sense.
If we design infrastructure to be inclusive from the outset, and commit the budgets required to promote gender equality and social inclusion throughout the lifecycle of projects, the return on investment in terms of societal and economic benefits can be considerable in the long term.
For example, if infrastructure can be designed to widen access to education, employment, and sexual and reproductive health services, it will boost a country’s GDP as more women become economically active, develop careers and pay income tax.
This means girls and women will lead happier, more fulfilled, more empowered lives, contributing to social cohesion and political stability. This, in turn, will attract greater investment from business and international donors.
A better, fairer society
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has called for an acceleration of gender mainstreaming in infrastructure. This is because it plays a central role in supporting co-ordinated action to ensure the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – and the other goals are achieved by 2030.
Inclusive planning and design of infrastructure can improve opportunities and life chances for girls and women by delivering outcomes beyond making hard, tangible assets more accessible or gender neutral.
Large-scale projects can be the catalyst for changing the way governments and institutions think about gender issues – commitment by them to provide inclusive infrastructure can lead to the adoption of wider-reaching gender equality and social inclusion policies. Such policies can help to shape how all infrastructure and public services are planned, designed and maintained.
This is how engineers can help to drive transformational change that challenges negative discriminatory societal norms and systems of oppression that impact on girls and women.