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Why does equality matter?

Words: The Planner
Diversity image

It's International Women's Day and we're carrying a large amount of material relating to equality and diversity in the planning profession. Why make such a big deal out of it?

Why give such focus to International Women's Day?

The reasons are twofold. The first is that, on this day in 2016, we more or less spontaneously ran a Twitter crowdsourcing exercise to help us compile a list of influential women in planning. It was a big success and we realised we'd tapped into something. To be fair, though, we knew that something was there to be tapped.

Which is the second reason why we're giving a focus to IWD. Over the three-and-a-half years The Planner has been in existence, we've interviewed a number of women in leadership roles in planning. The thing they almost universally have in common is that they're working in either the public sector, the third sector or academia. This hasn't been a deliberate policy of only talking to people in the public sector - far from it.

"The UK's biggest employer of chartered planners, for example, has 25 board members. 24 of them are men"

But it's fair to say there is an extremely noticeable imbalance in the proportion of women and men in leadership roles in the private sector in particular. A very cursory bit of desk research confirms the observation and reveals a rather depressing picture. The UK's biggest employer of chartered planners, for example, has 25 board members; 24 of them are men. The third biggest has more than 20 partners, just one of whom is a woman. The fifth biggest has 48 directors; just 9 are women. It goes on...

We're not in the business of pointing fingers - besides, the situation speaks for itself. Nor are we in the business of suggesting that there's explicit discrimination going on here. We don't believe there is. There are many reasons why women are less likely to advance to senior positions in the workplace - most notably career breaks to have families - and it's seen across most business sectors. But this particular discrepancy seems to be indicative of something deeper, and we do have to ask the question: Why, when there are as many women coming in to the planning profession as men, is there such a dearth of women in leadership roles overall?

It's not easy to answer, but the clues are all around us. During the course of compiling our material for International Women's Day we've heard repeatedly that the property and built environment industries are historically 'male dominated' - and interviewees such as Rebecca Humble of WYG have talked about how they found many networking events in the industry were male-heavy.

We've heard also about the phenomenon of unconscious bias, whereby 'like prefers like'; we know at least some consultancies are taking this seriously, because two have told us about the 'unconscious bias training' they run for their employees.

Anecdotally, we've heard about patchy flexible working and parental leave policies that drive some women away and into the public sector (where conditions tend to be more family-friendly, but pay tends to be less) and we've heard about fiercely competitive environments that seem to select for the kind of traits inculcated in young men as they grow up. The cultural biases that lead to the kind of imbalances we see in the built environment industries start young: one of our interviewees, Sandra Manson, told us about how she routinely encounters during her work in schools the belief that built environment professions and the academic subjects that underpin them are for boys and men, not girls and women.

"International Women's Day isn't just about women. It's about men, too, and what they can do to support the wider goal of creating a more diverse profession to the benefit of all"

There's hard evidence, too: According to the Office for National Statistics annual pay survey for 2016, the (pretty undefined) role of 'planning officer' brings with it one of the worst ten gender pay gaps in UK professions. Their research found a 26 per cent pay differential between men and women with this job title.

Now for the good news

The good news is that there's recognition of a problem, and there's action to resolve it. Sandra's work with schools in Newcastle is directly addressing this cultural assumption and she talks about the value of a role model in her own career. Women are forming networking and support groups, many of which provide mentoring to other women. Consultancies, such as WYG who kindly shared their policies with us, are signing up to diversity pledges, introducing stronger workplace policies and generally supporting the drive to redress the gender imbalance in planning.

Chief execs like Gerry Hughes of GVA, now speaking openly of the need to see more women in leadership roles, are vital to this exercise; as are the likes of Lisa Taylor of Future of London, whose Diversity Speaker Network aims to ensure that under-represented groups get on the panels at events and conferences. Planning needs this leadership, from men as well as women.

Which brings us to the bigger picture. International Women's Day isn't just about women. It's about men, too, and what they can do to support the wider goal of creating a more diverse profession to the benefit of all. It's about ethnic diversity (dreadful in planning, let's be honest); it's even about sexuality and the wider acceptance of difference, as a committee member of the Planning Out networking group for the LGBT community explains; it's about fairness in the broadest sense.

As Charlotte Mohn, one of the young planners we interviewed, explains, the job of planning is to play a role in fostering the conditions for a society that works for all. But how can planners do this work unless they are themselves diverse and have that close personal understanding of the issues that confront social groups who are historically maginalised? Last year at the Young Planners Conference, Riccardo Marini of Gehl Architects talked about the 'buggy test': If a mother pushing a baby in a buggy can't push it around an environment without encountering unnecessary obstacles, there's something wrong with the approach to planning and design.

At stake here is a very basic principle of fairness, which planning - we believe - has a duty to uphold. A fair society is more likely to be stable, balanced and work for all. A fair society is more likely to be a healthy and happy society. A fair society is just better, surely? Planning has a role to play in fostering the conditions for fairness in society at large. But in order to do this well, it must get its own house in order - and that starts with the most visible and inexplicable of imbalances in the profession: women and leadership.

Enjoy our coverage through the day - there's plenty of it!

Don't just take our word for it...

We leave you with Trudi Elliott, chief executive of the RTPI:

"RTPI is passionate about promoting equality and diversity, and we are working hard to attract a wider diversity of entrants to the profession through our bursary scheme,  new routes to membership and apprenticeships. Thirty-seven per cent Chartered members are now women and entry to the profession is currently at a record 50/50 male /female. (Within the Institute we are proud of that rare thing a 75 per cent female executive team).

"We need to see more positive role models from board level and on that reflect the diversity of our society"

"But this is only one of the issues we need to continue to work on. The profession as a whole needs to attract and retain talented people and we need to recruit the best from the widest pool and develop and reward them fairly. We need to see more positive role models from board level and on that reflect the diversity of our society. The recent ONS figures on an apparent gender pay gap in the sector is a wake-up call for us all, one that RTPI is now exploring.

"We encourage employers and  members to participate in both The Planner salary survey and our upcoming member survey to get a clearer picture of where any differentials in pay are and what actions this requires. As a profession we need to continually ask ourselves if we are doing enough to support not only women but all from diverse ethnic, LGBT and disabled minorities who are currently under-represented in the workplace, to enter the profession and achieve?"

Main photo | Shutterstock || Trudi Elliott by Jon Enoch