III. Women shaping the future of transport in cities: Who, how, where?

29 July progress report:
This off-the-cuff collaborative brainstorm is proving a pure and joyful learning experience. We started out with a single long-held idea: the importance of getting all aspects of the sustainable transport establishment on to a gender-level footing.

And against that firm base we set out to see if we could, with a little help from our friends, come up with a no-arguments list of great women leaders working in our field who, though their excellent preparation, their strong convictions and their courageous actions are literally redrawing the new mobility map of our cities. And all that at a level of excellence that captures the attention of others and inspires them to study, emulate and perhaps even to surpass the original project and policies. (Click here for further background.)

After just a few days, the response has been exceptional, and educational. The mails have hummed, bringing in more than fifty first-rate nominations, recommendations and ideas from almost as many colleagues in more than a dozen countries.

At the same time the interactive process we engaged is generating a steady stream of feedback, proposals and comments that are helping us develop an increasingly clear vision of what this entire effort is really all about. And where we all might eventually go with it.

In other words: This process we so innocently engaged for very specific reasons – namely to counter any eventual list of “important people” in our sector that is not at least very close to being gender balanced — is taking us somewhere that we did not quite anticipate at the outset. For instance?.

The harder we look, the more we can see not one but three basic “tiers” of gender/leadership opportunities emerging that are worth trying to understand and integrating into an overall strategic pattern. Think of what we are discovering here as a pyramid, with those making the final decisions and bearing the direct can’t-hide responsibility for them at the apex. But then firmly supported by two other vital foundations.

Let’s have a look.

1. Policy makers/Deciders
Here we have an important but still all too small group of women at the top who are actually making the front-line day by day and longer term policy and investment decisions in their cities and regions. Typical examples would be mayors and deputy mayors, ministers and deputy ministers or heads of agencies. However what is critical is not the title but the strong focus and the track record when it comes on-street in-lung accomplishments in the sustainability agenda.

Our first round of responses have brought nominations at this tier from Strasbourg, Stockholm. Sydney, Cape Town and New York City. And all that in just three short days. You can be sure that this list will grow.

The pattern has been set. We are out to destroy the old model of the provident male. ;-)

2. Advisors and advocates
This second leadership tier encompasses a considerably larger group and extends to outstanding women well up the ladder in their respective organisations, working more in advisory and advocacy positions. These women represent the vital underpinnings of initiatives, policy change and accomplishment in the sector. They and their male counterparts are the ones that are actually shaping the environment at the working level. Mayors and ministers, no matter how far-sighted and talented they may be, can accomplish nothing without them.

These exceptional women are typically working in city or national government, but also with NGOs, universities, consultants, local advocacy, transport operators, public health, schools, social agencies and more. *

Here the honor roll is already large and fast growing, In fact in an increasing number of cities and agencies you are going to find that the brightest women working at this level not only considerably outnumber their male counterparts, but they also often outshine them. For anyone working in the field at or near the leading edge, this is just a fact of 21st century life. And all this with a very promising for future ahead.

3. Full gender parity as policy

In the two above leadership groups, we can see that talented women are indeed making their way. That’s great, but despite this progress we still have a very big underlying problem that we need to deal with. On more than one occasion of late the fundamental weak point is that we are now lumbered with a structurally weak decision process that has been uncharitably called “stale, pale and male”.

Put in less cantankerous terms, our basic structural problem is that, by all the basic indicators and despite progress in specific places, and notwithstanding all the lulling rhetoric to the contrary, good performance is still the exception, and the truth is that all the critical indicators are moving in the wrong direction. Our bottom-line problem in brief is that we are losing the sustainability wars. And losing them big!

Recalling the old saw that many of the problems we face turn out upon inspection to be someone’s old “solutions, let’s consider briefly how those old solutions were largely shaped in our particular case.
Reality: Just about all of the decisions which have brought us to our present impasses in our underperforming sector have devolved from a form of political organization, society and decision structure that was (and is) almost entirely dominated by . . . males.

And more than that: in the areas that concern us particularly, by males who just happened to be in the top 20% slice of society in terms of wealth and, as such, pretty much unquestioning owners and drivers of cars. And in this process, by various devices and reasons, most of the key investment decisions are being made by males who are ineluctably tied into the car culture. Hmm.

(One of the really big problems with culture as a driver of decisions is that, by its very nature, it tends to be so deeply imbedded in everyday life and values that it becomes almost entirely invisible. Invisible perhaps, but still very much there and, in this case firmly in the driver’s seat.)

Now it strikes this one observer that, if there is any truth at all to this reasoning, it is time past to give this fundamental imbalance some real attention.

How to make better decisions?

1. Change the decision structure . . .
and move from today’s reality in which in almost every country the institutions and processes are by and large not only male dominated in terms of the numbers of men in leadership roles, but also by and large shaped by a largely male vision of society, and of the priorities and possibilities that underlay our decisions as to what to do next. We now have to leave this behind us.

2. So now that we know that, let’s change it.
And if on the one hand I am not at all sure as to how to execute this sharp turn, how in terms of the actual mechanisms to get this particular elephant to turn on a dime, I can promise you that once we have done it, once we have restructured our institutions and the underlying decision structures so that there is “full parity”, male/female, a very different vision will emerge. And with it different decisions and actions to preserve the planet and the future patrimony of our children and grandchildren.

3. On the reality of “gender balance”.
Image three different types of institutions or decision fora: (a) all male, (b) mostly male, or (c) gender balanced.

Now, it is my observation that (a) and (b) invariably end up being pretty much the same in terms of their tone and outcomes, (other than the all too rare case where there may be an exceptionally strong, aggressive woman or women in the miniscule minority. There indeed you may see some sparks fly and different outcomes. But how often does this occur?).

Executive summary: Bring in a small number of women in any given institution or decision forum, in most cases there will be no fundamental changes in values or decisions.

On the other hand when you approach “gender balance” (let’s define it for now as a minimum of 35-40 % participation of the “other sex” – whatever that might happen to be), you open up a very different kind of social, communication and decision environment. The fact is that (a) and even (b) are in almost all cases dominated by male values. Even if in most cases these may not be entirely conspicuous. But they are there and they do influence the terms, and the outcome of the debate and the decision process.

So when it come sorting out our streets, our cities and our planet, let’s all get behind this concept of full gender parity at all stages of the planning and decision process. Because if we don’t we are going to lose this war. I promise you.

* I would very much like to have your reactions to this.


One thought on “III. Women shaping the future of transport in cities: Who, how, where?

  1. I think it is the technocratic culture of transportation planning that perpetuates the gender imbalance and the gender imbalance that creates the technocratic culture. Focusing on gender parity is therefor perhaps less the issue as a culture change that can allow for a great gender balance and the better transportation outcomes that it will “engender.”

    Our transportation systems and mobility-centric focus certainly reflect a male-dominated influence. A Placemaking approach to transportation could allow for a broader set of sensibilities and skills to come into the sustainable transportation movement. I have written a bit about what this might look like: http://www.cles.org.uk/yourblogs/from-place-to-place-reinventing-transport-planning-with-placemaking/


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