We hear about the gender gap, or the gap between men and women in the workplace, in the news nearly every day. It’s generally associated with the difference in pay, with women making roughly 82 percent of what their male counterparts earn in comparable jobs, but it encompasses so much more than that. Women make up less than 50 percent of leadership in nearly every industry, and this has only increased by 2 percent in the last 10 years.
One thing that could change this gender gap is the concept of smart cities. What are smart cities, and how could their inclusive infrastructure help women in the future?
Smart Cities Around the Globe
Smart cities are the future. Some small instances of this smart and inclusive infrastructure are starting to pop up around the globe. Hamburg, Germany, for example, has smart housing that is a facade for a bioreactor. It provides the foundation for the growth and cultivation of algae that later becomes biogas, which heats the building and can also generate electricity.
The South Korean city of Songdo is a smart city built from the ground up. The city has earmarked more than 80 percent of its funding exclusively for green technology, and all its significant buildings have a green energy certification. The city has reserved more than 40 percent of its land for open space, as well. Songdo is the perfect example of a smart city, and proof that these cities can be built from the ground up to function as a safe and inclusive environment.
Bloomberg Government, in conjunction with Verizon, recently hosted a “Women in Smart Cities” forum to showcase female leadership in today’s smart cities and the future. Two women launched the forum: Catherine Pugh of Baltimore and Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Ind., both mayors of their respective cities. Both women offered some insight on the changes they’ve made in their cities to rebuild communities, improve education and increase job training to make it easier for the residents of their hometowns to obtain a job. Inclusive infrastructure is the basis of these changes.
What Is Inclusive Infrastructure?
What is inclusive infrastructure? The goal of this kind of infrastructure is that no one gets left behind, regardless of their income level, health, gender or other demographic signifiers. Civil engineers need to build cities and establish infrastructure where there isn’t a large gap between those with wealth and those in poverty and where equal opportunities exist for everyone. By necessity, this will include job opportunities, equality in the workplace, housing opportunities and other variables.
What does this mean for women, especially those in primarily male-dominated fields? Inclusive infrastructure includes everyone, which means there would be more opportunities for women to obtain positions in leadership and advance in their current careers — opportunities that have thus far been more difficult to achieve because of their gender.
Some cities have already started to make this move toward inclusive infrastructure. Leaders in Vienna, Austria, for example, realized in the 1990s that women were spending a lot of their time in the city on public transportation and on foot, doing everything from visiting family members and dropping off children at school to heading to the grocery store. They realized then that men and women have different transportation needs, and took steps to improve their city planning to make it more inclusive for women. That included things like adding streetlights to increase safety at night and widening sidewalks so things like strollers or wheelchairs wouldn’t block the way.
Cities like Bangladesh have recently started to realize the need for this kind of inclusivity. For instance, in spite of women using public transportation, there were no women’s restrooms in the majority of the large transport hubs. They have also taken steps to make job opportunities available to women in fields that were previously closed to them, like construction.
These are just a couple of examples of cities that are starting to shift their focus to inclusive infrastructure. We’ll no doubt be seeing a lot more of these examples in the future.
Benefits of Inclusive Infrastructure
The benefits of inclusive infrastructure are just starting to come to light, but they could make some unusual changes. At the current rate of change, it will take more than 200 years to close the gender wage gap. Introducing inclusive infrastructure could accelerate the timetable exponentially, shrinking the gap and making it easier for women to succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields like politics and leadership.
This new focus on inclusion is already starting to make appearances in developing countries that are just beginning to urbanize. Developing countries face additional challenges, such as violence against women, that a more inclusive infrastructure could solve. That doesn’t mean developed countries couldn’t benefit from this change — merely that the challenges facing women in those countries are different.
Downsides of Inclusive Infrastructure
While all these changes sound positive, are there any potential downsides to inclusive infrastructure? There are no extensive studies on this yet, but we can look at inclusivity in other fields to assess the potential negatives of this change to traditional infrastructure.
It is possible not everyone will benefit from this broad inclusivity. One good example of this is in education. Federal education law mandates students with disabilities — those who might also benefit from inclusive infrastructure — should learn alongside students their age who don’t have a disability. One study has found these students often have more absences and trouble with their social skills in this setting than they would in a special education setting. This trend could continue if inclusivity becomes the primary focus of infrastructure and civil engineering.
We won’t know the full impact of inclusive infrastructure until more cities like Songdo have had time to establish themselves.
The gender gap is still an enormous problem that affects so much more than pay. Inclusive infrastructure has the potential to give women more opportunities in markets around the globe. Now, it’s up to city planners and engineers to take the steps necessary to create more inclusive infrastructure in our existing cities. Smart cities with inclusive infrastructure are no longer an option. They’re quickly becoming a societal imperative, and it likely won’t be long before we see some of our existing major cities adopting this new style of infrastructure to the benefit of all.
*) This article was written by Kayla Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org), tech journalist and writer.
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