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WSP Gender Data Gap Report: Built environment inclusive design

WSP Gender Data Gap Report: Built environment inclusive design

 April 27, 2021

Have you ever come across in your daily life in the built environment something which you feel is not designed with you or your user needs in mind?

Can we THINK differently to DESIGN differently? This is a question posed by Steph Barton, a Future Ready Business Analyst at WSP who is challenging designs for a better, more inclusive society. Being very future-focused, Steph holds great passion for applying trends analysis to ensure trusted advice to clients is fit for the future. She supports the embedment of Future Ready across the UK and globally with the production of resources, development of training and elevation of engagement. She is also a keen ambassador for women in STEM and is proactively involved in industry-wide mentoring. 

She and intern Eabha Elliott, a master’s student at Queen’s University Belfast currently studying MSc Leadership for Sustainable Development, teamed up to produce a groundbreaking report called the Gender Data Gap during Eabha's eight week internship with WSP. The report provides a specific example of the kind of real and impactful work that interns can be involved with during an internship at WSP, as well as highlighting how WSP employees can actively forge their interests via their work.

Download the report here.

Exploring the impact of the gender data gap on the built environment

"Questioning the status quo, and thinking about how we could do things differently, and more inclusively, is what drives me," explains Steph. "My job is to challenge the old and today and encourage colleagues to ask a few simple but important questions: do things have to be this way? Could we do things better? " 

Steph has first-hand experience that design doesn’t always account for the needs of all its end-users, from changing my travel patterns to avoid dark routes at night to struggling to placing a bag above the seat on a train. Her latest project - a study on the gender data gap and its impact on the built environment - explores why this is the case and reveals just how easy it can be to slightly change approaches - for the benefit of everyone. 

In the study, Steph and Eabha consider how design standards and data models have been based on ‘reference man’ or, more recently ‘reference person’ for over 45 years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ‘reference’ is a young white male of average proportions with a Western lifestyle. Of course, there are many ways in which this sidesteps diversity, but we focus on one of the most obvious – it totally overlooks women. But not on purpose. 

"Typical data on cycling, for example, tends to focus on peak travel times when more men are travelling," says Steph. "Women are more likely to travel outside of peak hours when roads are quieter. A design that improves the cycling experience for women, by using segregated and wider lanes, will also benefit existing cyclists. Considering data that reflects women, designs and advice will become more inclusive from the start. We’ve painted a picture. With numerical and qualitative data we show the difference between typical experiences. Data gaps are not intentional. But rather, the result of a ‘one size fits all’ male norm approach which leads to missing information."  

Steph explains that a 'Future Ready' approach helps recognise trends and consider potential challenges earlier on - and looking to the future, Steph believes that automation is becoming significantly more important. Gaps in our gender data could make it unintelligent as it becomes written into artificial intelligence (AI) believes Steph. "We must design out inadvertent issues in our algorithms now. The ideal with AI technology is to reduce our human biases and cannot be built in this way without re-examining our data and current standards to better suit all," she states. "We all need to think deeply, and challenge solutions based on out-of-date data. Yes, we must meet our design standards and codes, but why not look beyond them? If we can change something for the better, why don’t we?"

Designing inclusively: Fixing the gender data gap

WSP - gender data gap report

What is the gender gap and why is it important? The WSP report on designing inclusively in the built environment details how the gender data gap affects the design and advice WSP provides. 

The gender data gap is where a ‘one size fits all’ approach has left gaps in our understanding of different genders experience. It isn’t intentional to exclude women, but by applying our understanding of user behaviours we can see that previously considered objective data is actually male-biased. Might thinking and design be done differently to reduce gaps in understanding and improve experience across society?

The gender data gap has often impacted the planning and construction of urban areas historically by using male-tailored dimensions and user behaviours which, once translated into physical designs, put women at a major disadvantage in their experience of cities. It is within WSP's power as designers, engineers and consultants to change this. The report analyses gender inequality in urban infrastructure through the lenses of urban design, transport, buildings, and safety at work, using statistics gathered from our survey supported by evidence from existing literature. Some of the areas highlighted may inspire moments of recognition or be things not previously considered but now are glaringly obvious. The list is not exhaustive but provides a starting point for further thought.

Why understanding the gender gap is important

First and foremost, designing inclusively is the right thing to do to provide the same opportunities and experience across society. Beyond this simple fact, there are several reasons to consider gender within WSP's designs.

Several of the challenges impacting gendered experiences are closely interlinked, and by finding a simple solution to one, wider benefits may be found. Moreover, studies have shown that by considering women, it brings benefits to other genders, race, ages and abilities. Simple changes in what is designed can bring significant benefits from GDP through to health and wellbeing, and we can all play a part in this vital change. It’s win-win. Furthermore, the switch to inclusivity is becoming increasingly important along with the rising prominence of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). WSP's framework detailed in their report acts as a guide for government, business, and non-governmental (NGO) organisations to measure their progress towards sustainability – a factor which today largely determines competitive advantage through consumer demand, attracting investment, and averting financial risks from climate change. Everyone has a responsibility to uphold the SDGs and closing the gender data gap provides a significant step in this process. Finally, the loss in human capital wealth due to gender inequality is estimated at $160.2 trillion globally .The economic gain, social inclusion, and environmental benefit generated from the inclusive designs reflect that creating gender equality is not a burden, but an opportunity.

Better for women, better for all

"Gender inclusion is not just a focus for women, when gender inclusion is considered within design and engineering it creates opportunity for consideration of the cumulative and intersectional impacts of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, income, class, ability, and age," cites the report.

And beyond the built environment, when it come to the workplace, Mark Naysmith, WSP UK & MEA CEO says: "Making our workplace more equitable in every way is simply the right thing to do. Diverse, inclusive teams - and organisations as a result - thrive."

Steph and Eabha discuss collaborating on the groundbreaking study

In an interview, Steph and Eabha talk about how their collaboration created the groundbreaking study, and why internships offer benefits for interns and employers alike.

Work at WSP

WSP is one of the world’s leading engineering professional services consulting firms, bringing together talented people from around the globe. They are technical experts who design and provide strategic advice on sustainable solutions, engineering projects that will help societies grow for lifetimes to come. 

At WSP, innovation regarding the built environment is key - and you can work alongside many talented women like Steph who combine their passion through their work. Steph has developed many transferrable skills while working at WSP like effective communication, credible presentation styles, and a drive to meet deadlines. She has built on these core skills during her project work at WSP, collating relevant evidence, considering different viewpoints then building a coherent and persuasive argument.

Sound like the right place for you? Search WSP's latest job vacancies and apply today - or learn more about the fabulous WSP internships on offer.


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Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.

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