The geography of gender

Woman walks through Asian city alone, lit by neon light

Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women across all areas of society. It is also a call to action. It is a day to recognise that while significant progress has been made in the status of women around the world, a huge amount of work remains if gender parity is ever to be achieved.

Gender parity spans a large number of areas. In the developed world we often focus on the context of the workplace and the gender pay gap which, in the UK in 2020, stood at a staggering 15.5%. Much focus in the last year has been dedicated to the alarming evidence that the pandemic has impacted women disproportionately in many ways, with studies showing an unequal gender burden across countries and continents, including an increase in unpaid care work, uneven distribution of domestic work, and women leaving the paid workforce at higher rates than men. Beyond these issues, the status of women in developing countries, horrifying rates of physical and sexual violence committed against women by men, access to education and healthcare, disparity in economic autonomy, and imbalances in access to leadership roles and decision-making are just some examples of the stark gender gap that exists in every country. However, this International Women’s Day, I wanted to touch on a less immediately visible barrier to gender parity – the way in which the geography of our societies is created by and created for men.

I studied geography at university, and International Women’s Day got me thinking about a specific field of study, feminist geography. At the time, as an 18 or 19 year old man, it didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t understand the importance or the intent of the topic, and I was dismissive of it as a discipline. It’s fair to say that at that age I probably wasn’t even aware that men could be feminists – whereas now, of course, I am absolutely unequivocal in my position that all men must be feminists, feminism simply being support for and advocation of equality and equity between all genders.

The use of “all genders” rather than “men and women” is, I should note, a definition I choose with purpose, holding the view that feminism should embrace trans, non-binary, and other gender nonconforming people. I am somewhat reluctant to even justify this, as justification implies giving credence to an opposing view that I believe lacks basic human decency – why should I engage with those who argue that trans women are not really women, for example? Regardless, I believe it’s important to reach beyond cisgender females in the scope of feminism, as people of many gender identities and expressions are oppressed by the same social constructs and societal structures that oppress cisgender women, and the focus of feminism should not be to fight over an outdated male/female binary but rather to dismantle patriarchal structures and, as so eloquently phrased it in this post, “challenge the primacy of cisgender males”. That said, I’ll generally refer to “women” and “female” in this post, not because I am aiming to exclude or imply that the concepts do not apply more broadly, but because much of the research and writing in this area is built upon the assumption of a male/female gender binary (a problem in itself).

If feminism is about equity between all genders, what is feminist geography? To answer this, let’s first look at some terminology. For geographers (and those who study other humanities subjects) two of the primary lenses for viewing the world are space and place, and each has a distinct meaning. Space is a relatively abstract concept. It refers to a physical location, but that could be bounded (“the area between Main Street and Market Street”) or conceptual (e.g. we could talk in generalities about “female spaces”, which would encompass everything from women’s social clubs to the abstract concept of the environments in which women hold more responsibility in a given society). Place is more specific, however, and can be thought of as a space with meaning, such as physical location, connection, cultural identity, or point in history. There can also be overlap between the two – to take an example, International Women’s Club of Dublin is both a place (physical location, feeling of belonging, cultural purpose), a women’s space, and (based on their website) a multicultural space. Think of the concept as a matrix, with many spaces running along one axis (women’s space, LGBTQ+ space, white space, visually impaired space, Muslim space, etc.) and lots of places intersecting one or many of those spaces along the other axis.

Feminist geography, then, is about the way in which space and place interact with patriarchal constructs and the primacy of cisgender males. It is a broad area, but covers topics such as the way in which women experience and move through space and place; examination of the built environment, such as our urban landscapes, and the way in which those spaces and places reflect male cultural norms; women’s identities and the way in which they shape and are shaped by the space and places they interact with; sex and expressions of sexuality, and the way in which this is distributed across space and place; social justice and equity for all genders; and related to that, a significant element of intersectionality, looking beyond gender and using feminist critiques to examine the way in which these concepts and structures intersect with other demographics such as race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and class. It can be thought of as studying human geography first and foremost through a feminist lens, critically examining our understanding of the world not from the perspective of those who have traditionally held power and created our society, but from the perspective of those who have not.

One common area of study for feminist geographers is the way in which our urban landscapes in the West are built around white male society. Because white men have historically held the most power, and because there is huge intersectionality, or crossover, between indices of inequality (economic, childcare, racial etc.) and gender, the net impact is that cities are built in a way which suits and aids the most privileged (men) to the disadvantage of women and the most marginalised in society.

For example, those with more power live in better areas. These areas are likely to have better services, including better public transport, which can be lacking in poorer areas where women are less likely to have access to a private vehicle. However, women in poorer areas likely have more need to travel due to the gender disparity on childcare responsibility and lesser ability to afford paid childcare, and a greater likelihood of engaging in employment such as cleaning or care work, which requires the ability to navigate the urban environment in order to be physically present, often at multiple locations in one day. Housing is more likely to be substandard, disproportionately impacting women, while politicians and other decision-makers who represent them are more likely to be men. Access to help and support is often less accessible for or less accessed by those who are minority ethnic or LGBTQ+, another intersecting index of inequality. Gentrification is by definition more likely to benefit the more privileged and exacerbate disadvantage (including that of women), pushing them further out of the urban landscape towards the margins. Even programmes to improve these barriers may result in a skewed benefit towards men, because men are disproportionately likely to be in leadership positions and therefore more likely to design and implement change through their own male-centric lens. All of these factors result in a compounded inequality between the more privileged spaces which men inhabit in our urban environments and the less privileged spaces women can access.

This masculine space also impacts women’s safety. Disparity in access to public transport and relegation to higher-crime areas means women are vulnerable, while poor streetlighting in poor areas reduces safety and increases the risk of violence, including sexual violence. We build our cities so that the risk is borne by those who are at the margins, and we blame women when our urban design is a factor in their rape. Criminalisation of either sex work itself or the infrastructure surrounding it (e.g. brothels) forces many women to put themselves at increased risk, subject to not only a male/female power dynamic, but also one involving race, immigration status, socioeconomic status, precarious housing status, and more. Some countries have begun to design their urban landscapes to increase safety of sex workers, but this is the exception rather than the norm. Our urban landscape continues to prioritise men over women and intersecting minorities.

Representation is another area of focus for feminist geography. For people to be a truly equal part of society, they must be equally represented. Our urban landscape, however, prioritises images and symbols of men over women. Analysis shows that there is a startling differential in the number of female statues in Britain versus male statues, with just 2.7% of them representing historical, non-royal women (2016 data). Introduce intersectionality into the mix and the picture looks even bleaker. The UK unveiled its first statue of a named Black woman, Mary Seacole, just five years ago; other countries and cities experience similar imbalances, with New York City, for example, having only five statues of historical women, only one of whom (Harriet Tubman) was Black. To compound matters, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 highlighted that not only are many statues, street names, and monuments in the image and reverence of white men, but they are in reverence of white men who subjugated and enslaved Black people for profit. The tearing-down of statues and icons in protest in several countries unleashed polarised debates about how – or whether – societies built upon the blood of slaves should face up to their history. Commentators for the retention of these icons to slavery claimed that people learn their history from statues, a somewhat disingenuous argument given the overwhelming evidence that we haven’t learnt from our history yet.

The full scope of feminist geographical study is too numerous to cover in detail here, but the underlying principles apply across the different fields of research. It is important to note, of course, that feminist geography is not without criticism. In one key argument that mirrors dissent from feminist theory as a whole, commentators note that feminist geography is representative of and influenced by primarily white, Western feminism and as such lacks representation from the very people it seeks to give a voice to. It is important to continue to shift this balance and incorporate voices that are diverse in all forms. But to my mind, the broad direction of the topic – critically examining societal structures to create equity for all genders and the oppressed – is a worthy one. After all, as mentioned previously, gender parity is impacted in countless unseen ways by the geography of our societies, which are created by and for men. Feminist geography looks to work towards spaces and places where we reorientate the focus to accommodate not just women, but minorities and the oppressed and their intersectional needs.

This International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to consider that if we are to ever achieve gender parity, we must work to understand the historical and deep-rooted inequalities in our structures, and critically examine every element of our society, as emphasis on the gender pay gap or uneven distribution of unpaid care work – while important – barely begins to scratch the systemic inequity that lies beneath the surface.

One response to “The geography of gender”

  1. Russell Dickinson-Deane avatar
    Russell Dickinson-Deane

    “holding the view that feminism should embrace trans, non-binary, and other gender nonconforming people” – bravo.
    Also, we aren’t starting from a good position with Liz Truss as the part-time women and equalities minister.
    Sorry I didn’t get to read it on IWD itself, but better late than never. Another thought-providing piece Guy.

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