Jessica Kempner | Palladium - Apr 02 2019
There's No Such Thing as Gender-Neutral Infrastructure

This year’s International Women’s Day theme included a call to use sustainable infrastructure to accelerate gender equality. Palladium’s Jessica Kempner explores the link between these two ideas and how we can #BalanceforBetter.

There’s no such thing as gender-neutral infrastructure.

Simply put, women and men use and rely on public structures and systems in different ways around the world.

For example, while it’s wrong to speak of ‘women’ as a homogenous group, studies have shown that overall, women rely more on public transport and walking than men do. Women tend to have far more complex mobility patterns around cities, due to their ‘double working day’ – responsibility for all domestic-related (and often unpaid) work as well as participation in the paid labour market. This means price hikes for accessing public transport can disproportionately affect women over men, and women from low-income groups most of all.

Unfortunately, most investment in transport infrastructure is put towards constructing roads, motorways, and bridges, which service private forms of motorised transport, and not public transport.

Meanwhile, large-scale infrastructure projects can bring unforeseen negative consequences for women. Take for example a resettlement program that is building a new road for women to use, but requires the street vendors – mostly women – to move. This removes extra eyes from the road, making the road feel less secure and more isolated, especially for women. When a gendered lens is withheld from infrastructure planning, unintended consequences can easily arise. Doing no harm to women should be the first hurdle for any infrastructure project.

Designing for women’s economic empowerment

But beyond avoiding harm, there are many ways in which infrastructure projects, if designed and implemented correctly, can directly and actively contribute to women’s economic empowerment, improving their lives and livelihoods. In fact, considering the implications for women throughout the entire infrastructure value chain - from planning and development, to maintenance and financing, to consumption and use - could have a hugely positive impact on women’s economic empowerment.

For example, infrastructure projects can create new opportunities for participation in the labour market. Building rural road networks might increase women’s income-earning potential by enabling access to new economic markets. Investing in safe urban transport systems might enhance the mobility of women and girls, enabling their access to markets, education, training, and other public services. But this assumes that the only thing stopping women from contributing on an equal footing to men is the lack of physical infrastructure. As always, it’s not that simple.

Building a new road needs to be accompanied by measures that promote equal participation in the market opportunities created by that road. Such measures could include applying quotas for women’s participation in construction and maintenance jobs, forming women’s labour contracting agencies and accounting for the different needs of the new users of this infrastructure - for example, providing women’s toilets at bus stations, a factor that may seem trivial but could be the difference between a woman using the new infrastructure or not. All this points to the importance of taking a holistic, systems-wide approach to inclusive infrastructure projects.

Safer public spaces and economic growth

Smart infrastructure investments can also significantly reduce women’s exposure to threats or risks, especially of violence. The prospect of encountering danger impacts women’s opportunities to progress in the job market.

Studies like that of economist Girija Borker have revealed the hidden economic cost of sexual harassment in India. Borker finds that women and girls curb their ambition, attending less prestigious schools and taking lower paid jobs, if it means avoiding ‘dodgy routes’ on their commutes.

This is perhaps unsurprising in a context where, according to a 2009 survey, 95% of women who participated said their mobility was limited by fear of harassment in public places, and a 2016 survey recorded that 44% of Indian women had been groped in public. $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 if women played an identical role to men in labour markets - beyond the ethical considerations then, there is surely an economic imperative to invest in safe infrastructure for women.

Investing in sustainable infrastructure has the potential to address environmental, social, and economic developmental goals in one fell swoop. That’s why this year’s International Women’s Day theme was a declaration of intent in the right direction. But if we truly intend to ‘leave no one behind,’ we must follow an approach that not only does no harm to women, but also actively seeks to do good for them. Risks must be mitigated as a given; but to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, women’s empowerment must be intentionally positioned at the core of all infrastructure projects.