Challenging Sexism: Questioning cultural and social norms
Aude Bicquelet-Lock: Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and visiting professor at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments at the University of the West of England.
Recent research conducted by the RTPI suggests that the majority of women working in town planning face barriers climbing the professional ladder because of their gender. Developing the conversation around the need for diversity in the planning profession is not a parochial exercise. Without genuine commitment to address issues around gender inequality there is a real risk that the profession will miss out on the benefits of nurturing and retaining real talents as well as the opportunity to create diverse and inclusive communities. However, addressing long-standing and complex forms of sexism within the profession will be a demanding exercise.
The Results of our recent study highlight a seemingly simple but important point – women working in planning today are still facing gender-related barriers that inhibit their personal development and professional advancement. Of course, planning is almost certainly not the only profession affected by the persistence of sexism and gender inequality. Other traditionally male-dominated working environments – within and outside the built-environment – similarly still not provide favourable grounds for women to thrive.
One of the most important points emerging from our research is that female planners nowadays face fewer challenges than past cohorts of women in attaining entry into the profession. There are now a lot more junior female planners in meetings than 30 or 40 years ago. However, the relatively equitable number of women and men entering the profession is not resulting in changes at the top level of companies. The main problem is thus not to attract women but to retain them and help them progress throughout their professional journeys. How to tackle long-standing and complex forms of sexism? Tackling this challenge, however, will not be an easy task – quite the contrary. It is easier to openly call out outrageous sexist behaviours and to put in place quotas, than it is to challenge subtle, complex and nuanced behaviours often deeply rooted in organisational, cultural and social norms. To be clear, the ‘boys’ club mentality’ is alive and well not because the profession is inherently dominated by regular pub-goer middle-aged white males who only care about football, but because social norms, or (more precisely) the mechanisms which translate and maintain those social norms within organisations, often penalise those who become primary care givers (irrespective of gender). Men’s testimonies on this point in the study were (arguably) spot on. While it is maybe easier for men to be promoted, their careers are affected in similar ways to women’s careers when they have children. To reiterate a blunt but telling point made by one of our male participants: “children rather than gender per se are probably the issue today in terms of career progression”.
As in many other professions, planning needs sound employment policies facilitating primary care givers (men and women) to return to work, in addition to programmes, schemes and structures to help support their progress in a way which accommodates their other commitments.
Of course one could (rightly) argue that even if all the right employment policies are in place, nothing will ever be achieved if we do not challenge deeply rooted perceptions about gender roles and abilities. In other words, nothing will change if current unconscious bias and gender stereotypes are permitted to remain.
Planning (and many other professions) also needs a culture change. Now, culture changes are not just about women. If they are to be successful, culture changes are about men and women who are conscious and respectful of human dignity, and who strive to build balanced and caring societies.
This is, in fact, the most difficult area to tackle because it extends beyond workplace policies and behaviours. Decisions about how much women and men should devote to their careers (along with the professional and personal sacrifices which determine whether or not to pursue a career) are negotiated at home and are often rooted in a long-standing set of values. Again, our study highlights a very simple but crucial point – women who did not suffer from any gender-related barriers throughout their professional careers had three things in common: an employer with family friendly policies, a good salary, and a supportive partner.
Hence – we need to challenge micro and macro forms of sexism, question our own bias and strive to challenge gender stereotypes in the workplace. However, we also need supportive partners and affordable childcare – both of which are beyond the scope of the planning profession (and indeed any professional body) to address directly.