ESSAY | Gender, Work & Planning Melbourne

Posted on 03/12/2013

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I just posted this on my research blog as part of my postgrad work. Thought it belonged here too.

Over the past couple of years lecturers have circulated information about the Women’s Planning Network’s Rising Star Scholarship, which invites submissions of 3000 word essays addressing gender and urban planning in a Victorian/Melbourne context. This year, I have decided to submit an essay which has been an exhilarating challenge and opportunity to work on something that has had my interest for some time … How urban structure and planning impacts on women’s workforce participation and reproduces traditional gender roles and inequity in Melbourne.

The Sustainable Lives in Sustainable Communities: Living and Working in Ten Australian Communities Report (Williams, Bridge, Edwards, Vujinovic & Pocock, 2009) found that women, particularly those in growth areas and outer suburban areas, often must forego skilled and higher paid employment for lower skilled, home-based employment in order to meet family and care commitments. There are whole of life implications of this given that women (a) still receive lower wages than men and (b) retire with significantly less superannuation than men. So urban structure compounds the financial precarity of women’s lives as they age. Having said this, I offer no opinion about the relative merits or value of working or not for women, particularly for mothers. These are choices for individual women to make based on their own circumstances and preferences.

The stories recounted by women informants in the Williams et al study made for some sobering reading and an indictment on urban planning. In particular, women identified commuting as their biggest challenge – a one or two hour commute means an untimely response time in the event of family need. While there is clearly a correlation, the study’s informants attribute causality to urban structure and systems. Earlier this year, when I attended the National Urban Policy Conference, I participated in a workshop with the National Growth Areas Alliance (NGAA) and there was much talk about a range of issues faced by residents of outer suburban areas including a lack of jobs and social infrastructure. The NGAA is campaigning to redress the imbalance. After listening to a panel of speakers, I realised that no one mentioned gender. So I raised this as the ‘elephant in the room’ and integral to any policy or planning response to social sustainability. Having opened up the topic, it attracted much interest and comment from others, which was heartening.

And then, there are shining stars of what I will call ‘gender oriented development’ like Vienna, where gender mainstreaming has been in place since the early 1990s and the city now stands on a two decade long track record of urban design informed by gender mainstreaming. Let’s not be afraid to talk about gender or to hide genuine gender issues under generic formulations or code words like ‘work/life balance’, ‘flexibility’, ‘safety’ or ‘childcare’ – to ignore gender in urban planning and design results in gender blindness and the reproduction or retraditionalisation of existing power relations, where women just have to fit in. That’s not how to plan, design and build an inclusive city.

As for my essay, it will be submitted this week, so crossing fingers. I look forward to publishing it in the near future.

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Posted in: gender, planning, research