Designing for Gender Equity- A recap

Last week, Ginger Daniel a third year Masters of Landscape Architecture student, presented a talk on Designing for Gender Equity- Empowering women in the developing world. Ginger has more than 10years of experience in the Gender and Development field, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and is on the board of Architects without Borders, Seattle. This talk was based on her current thesis project which is called Designing for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. 

Ginger began the talk with a brief introduction to what she hoped to achieve with her thesis. The fact that as designers we recognise the need for Gender Equality and its importance is somethings thats a given or an assumption for her. Rather her work focusses on how as designers do we help achieve this because how we design impacts behaviour and concretises norms for years, decades and indeed generations.

Development studies have long established that women are disproportionately affected by poverty, as over the world including countries in the Global North. This work is based off of the tremendous amount of work that has been done already in the field of international development where now, almost all of the UN Millennium Goals are centered around women and women’s empowerment. So if that is a given then we as designers have a huge responsibility. So what does designing for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment look like? How do we do it? This is most likely a process and not really a form. Ginger’s work therefore is more specific to process, and as the talk went on, it became apparent that only by thinking of design as a process and not as a form, can this issue be addressed. We as designers can train ourselves to understand process in a way that the work that we produce is more cognizant of the issues of Gender Inequality as well as works towards women’s empowerment. It would be difficult to think in terms of form because form is very specific and the group discussed briefly as form would be specific to site, culture and context.

The Gender & Development field has a lot to offer this conversation. Ginger briefly discussed the Harvard Analytical framework for Gender & Development which can be used for research and programatic understanding. It would be difficult to use it in the field necessarily because of its complex multi-layers. The framework is sex disaggregrated, which is always the case when evaluating programs etc in this field, and divides things up into activity profiles, and whats considered to be productive and reproductive activities, access and control, resources that are tangible with respect to what it means for men, women, boys and girls. Finally there is a project cycle analysis i.e. how are you ultimately incorporating gender and then using it as a monitoring evaluation mechanism. While this frame work is very useful, from a design perspective there is a lot that can be added to this- an additional dimensionality that would help the framework to serve for designers. So instead of just talking about productive activity in terms of who is doing them, one would also talk about where they are taking place in space, what are the resources that one needs to get them done and the location of those resources. Further it would involve looking at scale, from the street to the block, to the corner to the neighbourhood as well as taking into account the temporality and seasonality of things, relativity of things as well as safety that is real and perceived. In an ideal world, we would be considering all of these things while designing, and they seem like a lot but if we are not even aware of them, how would we we as designers even begin to do some of them. Its therefore a very valuable tool that designers can learn from. Another matrix that has been developed specifically with people who work with grassroots movements in mind. This matrix helps one learn from not only what knows but from what one does not know at all– if your assumptions are validated then great but it might be more useful that your assumptions get challenged. It would be very interesting and powerful to see the impact of what one is designing, over and above what was assumed it was going to be.

We are all aware of different spatial and mapping tools, all literature and data points to the fact that things should be sex disagregated while using these tools. One is not assuming that there is one normal norm for an experience. At the very minimum one must do it with a differential understanding for men and women and for girls and boys, though it would be advisable to further break it up also into some other criterions such as caste, ethnicity , so that there is multiplicity of use. One must be aware of the fact that if one is working in a community- one which one is not familiar with, then one could potentially ask to shadow, spend the day and even a night with one person to understand their experience of the day and the night because what happens at 4 in the night is going to be very different from what happens at 4 in the day. This would help form a better understanding of how people are using their resources and their time. Similarly one would prototype one’s entire process- whether working or a product or a building or a process of something one is creating- the process, the steps of it and then learn who does one need to engage with and is in actuality engaging with. Does one need to engage with women of a particular strata but is actually only engaging with men of that strata- so the class and other issues that some with that. One must be very aware of these issues and how they impair men and women differently to actually engage with what one is proposing. We are never going to be experts, so how does one engage experts to augment this process. There are bound to be women’s rights groups a very quick distance from where one is working, so one must find them. These organisations can be incredibly useful resources that one can engage with to better understand the issues at hand with respect to gender and what are the appropriate ways to address them.

Ginger further discussed on some of the work done in biometrics and ergonomics vis-a-vis Gender. However all of this work has translated into standards that are based on caucasian men and women. However when one is designing for communities that are not caucasian and disadvantaged, then first there are no standard that one can design. In such cases one must observe to understand how people use their space and things and design for them accordingly.

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What is also important to understand in this regard is Proxemics- which is about the anthropology of space. Its culturally defined, based in Gender. It covers everything from how comfortable one is in others company on a small scale, groups in private to bigger scales. It all shifts and changes depending on one’s home culture, societal cultural norms, national culture and all of it is gendered. These are things that one can observe on site and ask people about. These are things that would greatly impact things like – are women speaking up at community meetings? they may be present but not be speaking up because there is a culturally norm for women to speak in public. So what becomes important is to observe these norms and then begin t question them in a way that would allow you to engage with all segments of the stakeholders. How do you then modify your process and your engagement process to ensure that its an inclusive one? One of the most important things is to let go or work our ways out of binaries that are pervasive in or field- public/private, men/women, indoor/outdoor etc. and instead look at the whole economy that recognises all of these interdependent players that are involved in peoples lives. This is happening in recorded ways and unrecorded ways, so its very important to try to then record things that are traditionally unrecorded so that we are really seeing a fuller spectrum of how people are using space, how people are in space and how they are with one another. This conversation is of utmost importance now because of the rise in urbanisation and the true complexity of being able to live and thrive in an economy.

Some take aways from this talk by Ginger are: as designers we have a real responsibility to make gender visible, increasing gender diversity in leadership in design leadership and with communities that we are working with, disaggregate data, consult with mean and women separately, ideally based on caste and class. Be aware of what are considered to be men spaces and women spaces because we might not be able actually tell without asking- considered is different from what they seem to be, what do they symbolise, offer or perpetuate. Learn what spaces men and women respectively do and do not use, its not just important to know what somebody does use but also what they do not and why. Learn what information men and women wish they had access to, localise this access and recognise socially built impediments that prevent them from having access.Some of that can truly be spatial, they want access or learn something that is only being taught in another community- so then how do we facilitate their having access to it, how do you get them there. Make knowledge accessible to all- how are we really engaging the community that we are working with? how do we make sure that men, women, everybody, whether they are engaged with us on the project, have access to the same information? You are not working in isolation and that you are not isolating information that works to affirm existing gender norms.

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