Data’s Gender Gap: Gender and Infrastructure

Perhaps the most commonly shared and immediately visible example of gender inequity in public spaces is restroom lines. It seems to be a universal experience for those who use the women’s restroom to queue up outside in order to enter, while there is hardly ever a line for the men’s restroom. This phenomenon has surely inspired a number of sexist jokes and claims that women take too long in the restroom due to vanity, gossip, or other feminized actions.

However, the reality of the situation is that gendered restrooms have historically been built with equality in mind, but not equity, wherein equality is giving everyone the same resources, while equity is distributing resources according to specific groups of people’s needs. It has been repeatedly shown that women make up larger percentages of the elderly and disabled populations than men, that they are more likely to be accompanied by a child or someone for whom they are a caregiver, and that roughly one fifth of them are menstruating at any given time. All of these are excellent reasons why they would spend more time in the restroom than men, however it seems that building designers have failed to gather and consider data that would make the public restroom experience comfortable for all genders.

Restroom queues are a very specific example of gendered data failing to be taken into account when designing a public space or service. But when we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, even larger disappointments await. The majority of public transit users in major American cities are women (with 64% in Philadelphia and 62% in Chicago), and the patterns of their commutes commonly look far different than the patterns of men’s. According to Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men:

“Men are most likely to have a fairly simple travel pattern: a twice-daily commute in and out of town. But women’s travel patterns tend to be more complicated. Women do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work and this affects their travel needs. A typical female travel pattern involves, for example, dropping children off at school before going to work, taking an elderly relative to the doctor and doing the grocery shopping on the way home. This is called ‘trip-chaining,’ a travel pattern of several small, interconnected trips that has been observed in women around the world.”

Most cities’ public transit systems are based on getting in and out of the city center, presuming that the majority of riders live in outer neighborhoods and are primarily commuting in and out to work. I have lived in Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York City, and all three have this subway structure. But as Criado Perez notes, women, on average, tend to make multiple stops within each larger trip. And unless those stops are all along a path that goes straight into and out of the downtown portion of a city, the route can quickly become complicated and lengthy.

According to EM2030, a joint effort of leading regional and global organizations from civil society and the development and private sectors who believe that data can expose inequality and injustice, updating transportation systems to better suit women’s needs “[…] can make a difference in increasing women’s productivity and promoting gender equality by broadening access to health and education services, employment, and improving civic participation.” However, our work is not done once we update the structure of our transit systems.

Women’s ability to utilize public transportation might be contingent on the conditions that such transit is safe and violence-free. Multiple cities across the world have demonstrated benefits from tracking sex-disaggregated data to make services more inclusive. A study done in Semarang City, Indonesia, following their 2009 implementation of the Trans Semarang, a Bus Rapid Transit system, showed that women were more likely to utilize the system over private vehicles when bus stops had better lighting and expanded seating for elderly and disabled people, both populations of which women make up the majority.

Vienna, Austria has implemented the Urban Mobility Plan, which aims to collect age and sex-disaggregated information in order to improve the accessibility of the city’s public transportation by 2025. An additional benefit to programs such as these is a positive impact on climate change. When more people feel comfortable using the busses and railways, individual vehicle use is reduced and a path to a more sustainable future is set in motion.

As we can see in the Semarang City and Vienna case studies, narrowing the gender data gap results in positive benefits for everyone. By stepping back and considering the needs of all genders when utilizing public spaces and services, we can create an enduring and more viable public infrastructure that reduces harm to both individuals and our planet.

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Mandy Seiner

Mandy Seiner

Mandy Seiner is a writer and educator based in Brooklyn. She has a history of working with public schools, museums, and nonprofits. She is currently the Volunteer and Programs Manager at 826NYC.

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