Gender Mainstreaming: Creating inclusive mobility

Gender Mainstreaming: Creating inclusive mobility

In an attempt to secure a practical working definition of the term, POLIS’ Isobel Duxfield examines the shape that gender mainstreaming may take in women’s safety and security on public transport.

"Gender mainstreaming” has become a buzzword in mobility. The term, though frequently cloaked in a veil of acronyms and political vocabulary, denotes the process of assessing the implications for women and men, across design, implementation and evaluation of any action, legislation, policy, or programme. Despite growing attention to gender, the term “mainstreaming” remains somewhat obscure.

It is no secret urban mobility must be more gender inclusive; public transit schedules, sidewalk width, street lighting – the list continues; mobility has largely excluded women’s working patterns, childcaring roles and security requirements. However, from new POLIS member city Vienna’s redesign of public spaces to more recent enterprises such as Women Mobilise Women, a network of female change-makers, there have been a multiplicity of pioneering endeavours across Europe to bringing gender to the forefront of mobility planning.

More recently, CIVITAS’ publication, Addressing Gender Equity and Vulnerable Groups in SUMPs, provided a guide to implementing gender responsive and inclusive planning within a long term mobility framework. These initiatives call for gender to be taken more seriously, beyond equal ratios on conference panels, or cursive remarks about rising numbers of women riding bicycles; instead, gendered experience of accessibility, security and inclusivity must be integrated into the very definition of ‘sustainability’. But is this really mainstreaming?

Why do we need to mainstream gender in mobility?

Mobility patterns are determined by the gendered roles and responsibilities apportioned to males and females. Discrepancies in unpaid labour, salaried employment and leisure creates a disparate spatial and temporal geography of gendered transport usage.

This is not to say men and women hold entirely contrasting mobility practices; rather mobility patterns can frequently be explained by the sexual divisions of labour and the gendered ideals these create – patterns that vary according to financial wealth, physical ability, age and a range of other indices. As a result, policy makers, lobbyists, and researchers must confront the gendered nature of mobility to create successful and inclusive transit plans. This has been propelled to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic. With women accounting for 78% of health and care workers, metropolitan areas have been forced to guarantee these frontline employees are able to move around the city with ease and have thus needed to accommodate the gendered nature of this movement. When it comes to safety and security in mobility policy, understanding mainstreaming is critical.

A plethora of research reveals insecurity in public space overwhelmingly affects women more than men, and in response, many cities and regions are implementing a range of violence reduction policies, and projects to rigorously address this issue. However, such approaches frequently seek rapid solutions, overlooking the long-term commitments required to instigate safe and secure mobility for all.

Gender and vulnerability: What is the relationship?

A step towards such comprehensive “mainstreaming” for safety and security, requires interrogating the relationship between ‘gender’ and ‘vulnerability’ in mobility. Transport policy must address women’s safety yet avoid casting female users as hapless victims of violence. The SUMP guide states its aim as addressing the accessibility needs of “women and vulnerable users”2, yet, placing these two groups side by side is not necessarily appropriate. The term “vulnerable” denotes a marginal group; however, women are by no means a minority – they make up half the population! While many female passengers indeed find themselves exposed to harassment when navigating the city- an issue we must undeniably confront- women do not uniformly identify with the term “vulnerability”, if at all. Consequently, designing and implementing “gender inclusion” initiatives must encompass, and unite, a spectrum of experiences and attitudes, engaging women from a variety of ethnic, age and professional backgrounds.

This was a key issue for the Road Safety and Security Working Group when meeting to discuss ‘Security of Women in Public Transport’. Early in October 2020, the group met to examine current efforts to make transit safer for women and share research being conducted in cities across the globe. At the meeting, Sian Lewis’ research on women’s experiences of sexual harassment on the London Underground highlighted this issue – a study which has received extensive media attention, and has been widely used in British Transport Police training material. Lewis’ qualitative interviews with victims reveal how experiences of harassment have long term implications for the way women navigate the city; from micro-behavioural adaptions like holding belongings closer, to abandoning public transport altogether.

Road Safety and Security Working Group on Women’s Safety in Public Transport

The Road Safety and Security Working Group is one of POLIS Network’s forums where Polis members meet regularly in working groups to exchange best practices and share knowledge on sustainable urban mobility. The group addresses road safety as well as the security of transport systems and public space in times of hostile vehicle attacks. In October 2020, the Working Group held a meeting to discuss Women’s Safety in Public Transport. The perceived and the actual risk of violence and sexual harassment in public transport can reduce women and girls’ freedom of movement and equal access to our cities. The meeting explored research being conducted on women’s experiences of public transport across Europe (and beyond) sharing best practices and further challenges. The meeting was part of a wider effort by POLIS to open a new front for exchange on gender and mobility, learning from policy experiences, and fostering cooperation between members and the wider civil society on this critical issue.

The Working Group is coordinated by Pedro Homem de Gouveia.

Yet, Lewis’ observation that women actively resisted male intrusions and reclaimed space on urban transport systems, highlights the multifaceted nature of vulnerability. Not all women interviewed perceived themselves as inherently disempowered by harassment, many regarded themselves as capable of fending off violence. This exposes the need for a more nuanced understanding of gendered experiences of mobility, acknowledging the multiplicity of experience is essential for future dialogues about gender and mobility. “Women” are not a homogenous group; mobility solutions cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Female students, care workers and middle-class professionals navigate urban transport in separate ways and seek different services from such networks.

This issue was highlighted in Lisbon’s Padre Cruz Neighbourhood Pilot Project. The project, discussed by Rita Jacinto from the city’s Pedestrian Accessibility Division during the Working Group meeting, exposed that women of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds regarded road safety, personal safety, and harassment in distinctly different ways. Therefore, placing “women” alongside migrants, older individuals and low income or unemployed groups risks overlooking the ways gendered vulnerability intersects – and augments – other axes of identity.

Focus group conducted with women and girls by Rita Jacinto , © Rita Jacinto

This undoubtedly further complicates our cities’ mobility agendas; nonetheless, gender inclusion ambitions will not be realised without attention to this complexity.

 Gender mainstreaming: what is it? 

The term ‘gender mainstreaming’ takes its origins from the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, in which governments across the world endorsed a policy to promote gender equality and empower women. The UN Economic and Social Council (1997, 28), defined as follows: “Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.”

Read the report

How to create conversations about behavioural change?

Mainstreaming women’s safety necessitates more than technical alterations in urban infrastructure, it requires comprehensive transformation in mobility behaviour. The city may be “adapted” to fit female mobility needs, but such adaptation fails to interrogate behaviours and social attitudes required to truly mainstream gender planning. In order to tackle gender-based violence on public transport, many cities have instituted arrangements such as ‘female only’ train compartments, which are now commonplace in Brazil, Bangladesh, Egypt and Japan. Meanwhile, Vienna – a city hailed for pioneering structural and systematic implementation of women’s mobility needs – has radically enhanced street lighting in parks and around bicycle stands.

Such options usually have low implementation costs and present an attractive, “quick fix” option for local authorities; however, as behavioural scientist Floriza Gennari noted in her presentation to the Safety and Security Working Group, such solutions are merely sticking plasters, and eradicating violence requires wider, long term social and behavioural change. Policies aimed at improving women’s experiences must foster conversation between male and female transport users; “gender” is as much about masculinity as it is femininity, with experiences of harassment and violence constructed in the interchange between the two.

Examining a pilot project in Mexico City, which sought to engage bystanders to prevent sexual harassment in public transportation, Gennari explored how men could be engaged as “allies” in mobility planning through open conversations about harassment on trains, bicycles, and sidewalks, in a way which created a “whole community approach”. This reflects the City of Berlin’s analysis of their gender mainstreaming activities, which calls for holistic actions which confront gender specific role assignments and stereotypes, creating new mobility patterns and attitudes towards public space.

This is critical for researching, planning, and implementing gender inclusive and responsive mobility frameworks. Accessible and secure transit solutions will not come from women alone; cities and regions must involve men, women, boys and girls, addressing harassment across private and public spheres, in ways which engage rather than alienate all stakeholders, creating an environment where women and girls feel secure travelling freely across the city.

When cities get it right!

Cities and regions have found themselves at the forefront of gender equality initiatives. With a unique understanding of their citizens’ needs, local authorities have found innovative ways to ensure women’s mobility needs are being met. The Brussels Municipality of Ixelles has instituted gender-responsive budgeting, conducting a gender-based assessment of budgets and restructuring revenues and expenditures in order to promote gender equality.

Meanwhile in Umeå, Sweden, a city which has boasted a gender equality committee and a gender equality officer since 1989, has reshaped snow clearance activities around women’s mobility when women were shown to be primary road users in the morning.

What does this mean for mobility research and planning?

These concerns have significant implications for cities and regions striving to address women’s access to mobility and safety while using services. As gender becomes an increasingly prominent issue within mobility forums, policy makers will find themselves under growing pressure to integrate gendered planning across transport agendas. Here, security offers a window into what is required to truly mainstream mobility.

Approaches to “vulnerability” which account for the multiplicity of women’s experiences may at first appear daunting for policymakers, adding to their already strained workloads. However, they ignore concerns at their peril, as without understanding these differences they will not secure the broad base approval necessary for successfully implementing sustainable and inclusive mobility initiatives.

For example, bike lanes widened to accommodate mothers with young children, yet not extended into low income areas will serve only a fraction of female service users; while streets lighting illuminating university districts, but not places of worship disregard many women’s daily routines. Furthermore, accessible and safe mobility begins before a woman steps on a tram or mounts a bicycle.

Transport use patterns are a symptom, not a cause of marginalisation. Gender inclusive planning requires engaging with the social systems which deter women’s use of public or shared mobility networks, adapting data collection and policy language accordingly. Issues like harassment can only be tackled in coordination with dialogues in schools, workplaces, and community groups, where men and women are engaged throughout the decision-making process.

Vienna – a model for gender mainstreaming?

Floodlit public transport in Vienna, © Unsplash

The City of Vienna in Austria began to place gender mainstreaming at the forefront of its policy agenda in 2000, creating a cross-cutting strategy for the whole municipality – it even has a Gender Mainstreaming Department. The city’s revision of public space, residential architecture and transport networks, pedestrian space and street lighting has inspired similar projects in cities across Europe. To implement these developments, Vienna has utilised co-creation opportunities and championed female architects and urban planners. Read Vienna’s ‘Gender Mainstreaming Made Easy’ guide here.

About the author:

Isobel Duxfieldis Communications Assistant at POLIS Network,