Image of Maggie and Priti smiling

Infrastructure has a vital role to play in gender equality

For International Women’s Day 2023, Professor Priti Parikh and Dr Margarita Garfias Royo write about the significant part infrastructure can play in increasing gender equality.

Dr Priti Parikh FICE, CEng, FRSA is a Professor of Infrastructure Engineering and International Development, Acting Director at Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, University College London and Board Member at Engineers Against Poverty. Dr Margarita Garfias Royo is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director at Engineering for International Development (EFID) Research Centre, The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, University College London.

Infrastructure planning, design decisions and project delivery have a direct impact on how we experience an environment. The way in which infrastructure has traditionally been designed and provided has not included the different needs of women, men and marginalised genders. These differences can stem from the social roles each gender is expected to perform, including economic status, without always accounting for the specific experiences and disadvantages of different genders.

This may worsen when we think about the intersection between gender with other characteristics, such as race, disability or age. Ignoring these differences has led to infrastructure provision that quite often works better for heterosexual, able-bodied men and, most often than not, creates burdens for women, girls and marginalised genders, exacerbating and reinforcing gender inequities.

The way people interact and use infrastructure varies among the different groups of society – so transportation routes may be used for different purposes by different genders for activities such as employment, running errands or leisure. This is why it is important to plan, design and deliver infrastructure which puts the needs of women and marginalised genders centre stage.

Poor quality infrastructure can generate obstacles for everyone, but in particular for women, girls and marginalised genders, who are more adversely impacted by gaps in services. Transportation nodes, areas with lacking infrastructure, city centres and areas of mixed land use tend to be settings for violence. For example, sexual violence committed in public can be associated with spaces such as parks, construction sites, vacant fields and buildings, narrow paths, distant latrines and poor street lighting.

Not addressing these shortcomings can create a vicious cycle where women, girls and gender minorities struggle to exercise agency in decision-making. Other ways in which women, girls and marginalised genders are often excluded from planning decisions is through under-representation in decision making processes and overlooking their needs and economic contributions.

Inclusive infrastructure has the potential to foster safer public spaces and reliable infrastructure services for all members of society, facilitating their access. This could help achieve economic independence and autonomy, as women and marginalised genders often have to think about their safety in public spaces. This provides a meaningful opportunity to remove barriers to accessing employment, education and building social networks to cope with risks and for mental health and well-being.

Incorporating women and marginalised genders voices could be achieved through different avenues, including:

  • Carrying out gender-inclusive stakeholder participation processes at the different stages of a project.
  • Allocating budget or mobilising resources to achieve gender equality goals.
  • Conducting risk assessments on the gender impacts of infrastructure as well as integrating gender equality considerations in project specifications.
  • Designing robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to ensure objectives are being met.
  • Investing in career progression for women and marginalised genders and recognising the value of diverse viewpoints and approaches.

This may look like: considering diverse sanitary needs; childcare needs or safety needs in the design of a building. It may also look like factoring the disproportionate disadvantages women and marginalised genders may face, such transport inaccessibility and poverty. Some of these considerations also include ensuring services and public spaces are free from constraints and barriers as well as being affordable and safe. Or rejecting infrastructure designs that lead to more spatial segregation.

Having women and marginalised groups in leadership roles can lead to a shift in engineering and the construction sector. Their voices could have a big impact in decision making in how cities and infrastructure projects are conceived and delivered. A diverse workforce and workplaces will enable our cities and regions to include the needs and aspirations of all. Worldwide, women only occupy 9% of senior roles, 13% of mid-level roles, and 22% of junior roles in infrastructure.

Promoting gender inclusion is one of the key areas the work of Engineers Against Poverty focuses on because infrastructure is vital to furthering gender equality. Gender inclusion is a necessity, not a burden. Over half of the world’s population are women, girls and marginalised genders. Taking account of their experiences leads to better outcomes – from increased personal and societal economic benefits, increased safety, better health and more.

This International Women’s Day and beyond, we must consider the gendered impact of infrastructure so that we can build a world better for all.