Here’s a pretty common scenario – we are invited to an urbanist meet up or a group ride and I look around to find I’m one of just a handful of women in a sea of men. Each time I think to myself, where are all the ladies? I can’t be the only one who has an interest and passion for urban design and mobility, can I? And of course I’m not. If Facebook and Twitter have proved anything, there are tons of us sharing stories and opinions on social media, supporting each other from all over the globe. So then why do so few come out to events and activities that directly link to their passions?
It’s a dilemma I’ve been pondering since we were visited New Zealand last autumn. While travelling throughout the country, we had the opportunity to meet some pretty spectacular women, all passionate about multi-mobility, be it improved cycling, walking or public transit infrastructure. From the Frocks on Bikes, a national female-oriented advocacy group focused on promoting normalized cycling with a “show not tell” approach, to politicians like Celia Wade-Brown, Mayor of Wellington, and Julie Anne Genter, a member of the New Zealand House of Representatives with the role of transport spokeswoman for the Green Party. Both are working to move their cities and country away from car-dominated transportation. They were all inspiring women to meet, and I returned home emboldened by this passionate group of women and how they are impacting change in New Zealand.
After three months of being back in Canada, I’m finding it hard to find the same female-driven passion, at least in my circle of friends and acquaintances. It’s not to say their not out there, but we don’t seem to gather in the same way. One reason I came up with, drawing from experience, is that many of the women I know, the ones passionate about making change, also have much bigger responsibilities on their plates that require more time and dedication. Be it high pressure jobs, the hectic schedules that come along with having children, or a combination thereof, I know I even have a hard time juggling my time, and frankly, social meet ups are usually the first thing to go.
With that in mind, though, I sometimes think that I, and women in general, need to make more of an effort. But here’s the dilemma – as a woman, I really dislike being pandered to, or thought of as a special interest group. As much as I think a female-centred urbanist group is an excellent idea, allowing like-minded women to come together and share our ideas, stories and passions, there’s something about the fact that we need to gather separately from our male counterparts that really rubs me the wrong way.
Maybe it’s because I know that the only way to ensure that, regardless of gender, everyone’s needs are being met is to collaborate. Women offer unique and different ways of looking at problems facing urban designers, because we think about them differently. Even between Chris and I, two people that have been together for nearly two decades and discussing all sorts of issues and challenges, it is very common that I offer a new way of looking at things because of my experiences as a woman and a mother. What works for him, a thirty-something male, doesn’t always work for me, a thirty-something female who travels by foot and bike with our two children more regularly.
It’s daunting, I know. I’ve sat at a table with several men, myself the only woman, and felt out of place. Being amongst women encourages us to be more open with my opinions, and frequently it turns out we are all experiencing similar challenges. And while I dislike the idea of separate meet-ups in theory, there is a definite benefit to be gained, not the least of which would be discovering a powerful support network. Perhaps that’s why organizations like the Frocks on Bikes have been so successful – they are a collaborative effort by women who wanted to change the narrative, but recognized the best way to do it was to come together with their female counterparts to provide the support that can only come from those who understand the challenges we face. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m willing to explore it if there are those out there interested in joining me. In the meantime, I will do my best to join that local group of mainly men, hoping that my mere presence encourages other ladies to join the conversation!