Friday, July 29, 2011

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

29 July interim progress report:
This off-the-cuff collaborative brainstorm is proving a pure learning experience. We started out with a single long-held idea: i.e., the importance of getting all aspects of the sustainable transport planning and policy establishment on to a gender-level footing. And against that understanding we set out on Tuesday  to see if we could, with a little help from our friends, come up with a convincing list identifying a certain number of outstanding women leaders working in our field who, though their excellent preparation, their strong convictions and their courageous pioneering actions, are literally redrawing the new mobility map (and the mental maps) of our cities. And all that at a level of excellence that captures the attention of others in other places, and inspires them to study, emulate and perhaps even to surpass the original project, approach and policies.

The response to our invitation for nominations three days ago has been immediate, bringing in more than fifty nominations, recommendations and ideas from almost as many colleagues in more than a dozen countries. At the same time the open 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.

Here is what we have learned thus far: The harder we look, the more we can see not just 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 top. 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 in each case is not their title but their contribution: the strong focus and the track record when it comes to notable transformative accomplishments and approaches which are showing the way to other cities in other places.

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.

2. Advisors, advocates, activists
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, advocacy and activist 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 on-street sustainability environment at the working level. Mayors and ministers, no matter how far-sighted and talented they may be, can accomplish very little 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 worldwide 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 are starting to outnumber their male counterparts, but they also often outshine them. For anyone actually working in the field at or near the leading edge, this is not an opinion -- it is just a simple observable 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 at and to the top. That's great, but despite this progress we still have a major structural problem that we need to deal with - a structurally weak, seriously out of date, blatantly underperforming decision process that in most places has been thoroughly dominated by males and dominant 20th century male values.

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 our 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 see if we can give this fundamental imbalance some real attention. Let me conclude this interim report with three observations:

How to make better decisions?


1. Change the underlying 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. If we are going to have a chance in the sustainability wars we are going to have to leave this behind us. It's that simple

2. So now that we know what the problem is, 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” at all levels of the investigative and decision process 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. That is to say: Bring in a small number of women in any given institution or decision forum, in most cases there will be no fundamental transformative 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 the old 20th century ascendant male values. Even if in most cases these may not be entirely conspicuous. But the truth is that 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.

Eric Britton (hoping for comments and critical remarks)

* Reminder: This is by no means a new area of concern of World Streets and the team behind it. If you click here you will be taken to earlier articles that take on this challenge.

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