This past March, Urban Strategies held a women’s lunch and a panel discussion in honour of International Women’s Day, to engage in a dialogue on gender equity within our profession. The discussion was guided by the questions and topics gathered from the firm, discussed among a panel of six women Strategists representing a wide cross-section of Planners and Urban Designers from different backgrounds and who are at different stages of their career.
Jamilla Mohamud and Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker, two of the panel members, and Lauren Haein An, who moderated the discussion, reflect on the panel discussion in hopes of continuing the dialogue towards understanding and addressing gender inequities in our industry, and in acknowledging important perspectives and contributions women bring to creating more inclusive and resilient communities.
As a starting point, some common themes surfaced among the questions asked to the panellists; of challenges women face in the industry and broadly in the workplace. These include experiences of gender bias, feeling of impostor syndrome, and balancing professional and caregiving responsibilities. And while it’s recognized that more women are entering the planning and design profession today, it became clear that the grounds are still not always favourable for women to thrive with structural barriers and existing inequalities that continue to persist. More broadly, the effects of these professional and economic inequities have intensified with the current COVID-19 pandemic, evident in the disproportionate unemployment rate among women of all ages in Canada in recent months, with women of colour being especially hard-hit. According to the United Nations, women spend over three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men. Caretaking responsibilities are further augmented for working mothers who are expected to manage working from home while supporting remote learning.
Debunking the Myth of Imposter Syndrome
In responding to questions on the gender dynamics in the field, panel members shared their experience such as the feeling that they must work harder than male counterparts to be considered as being good at one’s job, and doubts about one’s value and confidence in the workplace as a form of “imposter syndrome”.
Self-doubt experienced by women in the workplace is tied to a longer history of exclusion and bias against women. Some have argued that diagnosing women as suffering from imposter syndrome tends to pathologize individual women and ignores how workplace systems can create, maintain and exacerbate feelings of self-doubt and anxiety in women. In a 2011 article entitled “Stop Telling women they have Imposter Syndrome”, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodie-Ann Burey state that rather than try to overcome imposter syndrome as an individualized diagnosis, there is a need to make critical connections to women’s feelings of self-doubt to processes of “systemic discrimination and abuses of power in the workplace” that disproportionately impact women, particularly women experiencing systemic racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia and other biases.
In urban planning and design, professions that are disproportionately male and white, there is an imperative to debunk the myth of imposter syndrome that places the blame on individual women in order to work towards supporting women in the workplace, and to support gender inclusive city building practices.
Building Gender Equitable Cities and Workplaces
Gender equality is critical in all parts of society beyond planning and design, however, as an industry that has a direct role in shaping the built environment, diversity in the industry directly impacts the way that places are designed and planned, and ultimately those who we design and plan for. As a crucial step towards building inclusive cities, here are some considerations to build a more equitable and inclusive workplace for women, and to set the groundwork towards designing inclusive places:
- Recognize Issue of Gender Bias as Central to Planning and Design
The panel highlighted that women bring important perspectives to planning and design and bring awareness for inclusion often as caregivers for children, the elderly, and others whose voices are often underrepresented in decisions affecting the built environment. Despite the general lack of recognition, women have made crucial contributions to City building, and the need for this is greater than ever.
In her 2017 Spacing article, Pamela Robinson states:
“Historically, the practice of planning and designing cities has been top-down, and driven by experts in professions where the number of men dwarfed the number of women … If we want our cities to truly respond to our current and future needs, then we need to broaden our practice and politics to include more diverse voices from people beyond the “usual suspects.” In city building, we need to create a practice in which we ask “Whose voices, ideas, and experiences are missing?” and “What do we need to do to engage them so we can listen and learn?” (Pamela Robinson, Spacing)
Read the Urban Strategies blog post on how City design can reflect gender bias and the importance of designing an environment that supports the activities and needs of women.
- Intersectionality is key to understanding and addressing gender inequity
One of the key themes of the panel discussion was the importance of understanding and acknowledging intersectionality; how inequities based on identities like gender, race, and socioeconomic status can operate together and really compound challenges and experiences of disadvantage for some women. In understanding and addressing gender inequities, applying an intersectional lens to understand unique circumstances created by intersecting facets of one’s identity is a key step to examining engagement practices, design and planning processes, and implication for policies on women of diverse backgrounds and abilities.
- Meaningfully celebrate and highlight the success and contributions of women
Representation matters. In Canada, women account for more than half of the population, however, are still underrepresented in professional leadership positions. These gendered disparities are also reflected in the urban planning and design profession. In her 2020 article “The Planning Profession Needs More Black Women”, Diana Ionescu noted that only 3% of professional planners identify as Black women. It is important to position women as leaders, and to amplify their voices and perspectives in the decision-making processes. Moreover, there is a need to meaningfully celebrate women’s accomplishments and contributions to city building practices within and outside of the formal structures of the planning profession. By highlighting women’s leadership roles, we create opportunities for women to be mentors and positive role models for younger colleagues and future generations.
- It’s our collective responsibility to address gender inequity
In sharing their stories, multiple panel members noted that they rely on supportive partners, family members, and others in their lives to “make it work”. It was also remarked that collaboration and support are key to creating a positive workplace for women. This includes creating a culture where women feel supported to work flexible hours and taking extended parental leave. It also means building inclusive and equitable teams that can bring these considerations and perspectives forward, and making it incumbent on everyone to learn from these perspectives, and that voices are not only represented at the table, but also heard.
Thank you to the panelists Cyndi-Rottenberg Walker, Emily Wall, Jamilla Mohamud, Tatjana Trebic, Yiwen Zhu, and Zoal Rafaq for sharing their valuable perspectives and insights.
- Goal 5 | Department of Economic and Social Affairs (un.org)
- Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome (hbr.org)
- The Facts | Women in Leadership | Canadian Women’s Foundation