SDG 3: Achieve gender quality and empower all women and girls
Imagine a new men’s toilet block being commissioned for your local sports club. The old toilet facilities have fallen into disrepair, and the governing council of the club announces it is time for a refurbishment. The governing council of this sporting club also happens to be all women.
When it comes to confirming the design of facilities, it is unanimously agreed that they will be exactly the same as the newly designed women’s facilities. Those facilities, the council reasoned, had come out quite nicely. 'Everyone' was pleased with the result.
The men in the club were uncomfortable with the outcome but were told by the governing council that their perspectives had been taken into account. Even though no men had been involved in the decision-making process, they were told this was the best solution for all.
Now, that does not make sense, you might think. Why would a group of women decide on the design of facilities on behalf of the men? How could they do that without even properly consulting them?
Of course it doesn’t make sense. That is the point.
The above scenario would almost never occur in real life because often, the reality is in fact the opposite. It’s not just with infrastructure projects - this is the way decisions are made for and about women living in almost every society, every day. Choices that directly and indirectly affect women’s lives - whether as obvious as a toilet block design or as obscure as the lighting at public transport stops - are often made without women’s involvement, and as such, the outcomes are often unfit for purpose. At the very best, they silently marginalise the community they are meant to serve. To combat this and make the resulting infrastructure fit for purpose, engineers need to ensure that they have input from all sections of the community they are serving.
This is one of the reasons why the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5), to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, is incredibly important. Full and effective participation of women in both engineering projects as well as in leadership roles - and equal opportunity across the board: political, economic and social - is imperative to an optimally functional and cohesive society. One of the reasons, but not the only one.
Full and effective participation is not only about ensuring societies’ infrastructure is designed in a way that is fit for purpose. Like many teams, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. When women are empowered and have access to participation and leadership, all of society benefits, and some of these benefits we should not do without.
The statistics speak for themselves
The International Labour Organisation suggests that women’s work may 'be the single most important factor in reducing poverty in developing economies'.
Christian C. Dezsö and David Gaddis Ross argued in 2011 that firms with females at the senior executive level added $44 million to the company’s value.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that for many countries, raising women’s workforce participation to the same level as men’s could raise GDP (gross domestic product) per capita by significant amounts – in Egypt for example, by 34%.
The book, Sex and World Peace1, suggests that the 'very best indicator and predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not wealth, military expenditures or religion, but how well its girls and women are treated'. The book goes on to argue, using 148,000 data points over 375 variables for 175 countries, that 'the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields'.
So not only does full and effective participation of women in leadership mean better suited and more sustainable infrastructure, which will arguably lead to safer and more inclusive communities, it will also be economically and politically beneficial for countries across the board.
Men and women may have differing ways of engaging with leadership, different leadership styles and may want different types of opportunities. The question is not about how the opportunity looks or presents itself, but that it truly exists in the first place.
At the end of the day, roughly half the population is made up of women, or those who identify as women. Society simply cannot function at its full potential if only half the talent is being utilised. It is incumbent upon us that we allow every possible opportunity for the other half of the talent to participate and to lead. Together, we can work towards a world that looks after us all.
1 - Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad Emmett, 2014