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IWD: How the planning profession can support women

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International Women's Day, today, 8 March, celebrates women's achievements and happily there is a plethora of outstanding work to celebrate in planning. But there are a lot of unsung heroines, says Emma Parsons MRTPI.

There is a common opinion that women face an imbalance in how they are treated working on projects and career progression on a daily basis, which generally tends to be weighted in their male counterparts' favour. Even in cases where employers are more fair, women often encounter biased attitudes within the wider construction industry.

Similar sentiments are reflected in the Global Gender Gap Report, highlighting that much needs to be done internationally to diminish the gap in terms of pay equality and career progression between men and women. It shows that on current trends, the overall global gender gap can be closed in 100 years over 106 countries.

How can the UK planning profession pioneer and shorten this gap faster?

Firstly, it is important to shine a light on the situations that many women encounter. While some women have pro-active employers, or have managed to forge a path for themselves to where they want to be, there is a common underlying frustration about the unfairness in the work place that is rarely spoken out about by women, for fear of being seen as criticising their employer.

The RTPI has increasingly encouraged women into the profession over the past 15 years or so and taken a fresh approach to promoting planning in an exciting and welcoming way. RTPI-accredited courses turn out as many high-flying women graduates as men. Women typically finish a planning degree and turn up fresh faced into the world of work with confidence and a belief that they are on an equal footing to men - that they will continue to be treated fairly, recognised for their abilities and rewarded accordingly.

The knock-backs that happen in the years that follow are a mystery to many women. There remains a common pattern in both the private and public sectors where men progress up the career ladder faster than women and get paid more. Why is it that women do not experience the same level of equality in the workplace as they have done during their education, where they honed excellent talent and skills?

It seems that there is a new game being played in the ‘real world’, but not everyone knows the rules. Women are left to trip over a few old-school tricks that seem to have been entrenched over years and years of a male-dominated profession. How can we ensure that women land on their feet?

Planners currently close to retirement age will tell us that there have been improvements over the last 40 years towards equality. There are now more women working as planners, more opportunities for work/life balance and for part-time working. Despite these improvements, there is still a perception that having a family may hinder your chances of promotion into senior roles or management.

The hurdles that women face are often subtle and an accumulation of behaviours that lead to an overall environment where women feel they are not recognised for their abilities or treated with full professional respect. Typically, women tend to find that the wider development and construction industry is male dominated, together with senior management in planning. This can sometimes lead to an inherited matcho ‘boys talk’ at meetings in which women can struggle to know how to contribute effectively or to be heard. For women to feel comfortable and confident, both men and women should make a special effort to find common ground on both sides with other professionals at meetings to form an effective working relationship.

"The hurdles that women face are often subtle and an accumulation of behaviours"

In terms of professional history, women planners in the workplace is a relatively new thing. Women can therefore be reassured that things have progressed and it is important to stay confident, and appreciate the current opportunities that are available. Women also need to stand their ground by relaxing in their free time and not over-working to try and prove themselves.

The overall solution is one of ongoing communication, and there are a few actions that both men and women could do to support women:

  • Women and men collaborate on equality issues. The best outcome will be one of mutual support, communication and shared views.
  • Encourage women to take responsibility, make decisions and explain what the implications of these decisions might be.
  • The RTPI to share knowledge, recommend books and organise affordable workshops in workplace skills that typically women need to improve upon, such as positive speaking and self advertising, presentation skills, negotiation, business awareness and confidence building. Promote wellbeing and stress control methods
  • Actively promote and praise success and achievements by women at all levels.
  • Women: be brave and speak out if you are not comfortable with the language being used, perhaps even suggest alternative phrases.
  • Men often may not realise the impact that their language is having. Encourage women to talk positively about themselves, and management should make an effort to recognise potential in interviews.
  • Seek common ground on a variety of topics to open meetings with new acquaintances.
  • Encourage men and women to network together and do things other than the typically male oriented football, rugby, or golf.
  • Timetable women's network events during the day so that women with childcare responsibilities can attend.
  • Women in senior roles to run workshops to  inspireand share knowledge with other women.
  • Support flexible working patterns and remote working to help balance family commitments.
  • Ensure work place equality policies are up-to-date and implemented.
  • Support women to manage emotional or family needs alongside their career.
  • To create the best places, we need to allow the best people to thrive within a supportive network of brave individuals, all supporting one another.

Emma Parsons is a planner at the City of Cardiff Council.

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