Image 2021 10 22 T14 44 20

Breaking barriers: The impact of unconscious bias on our community

Back to insights

SpotifyApple podcast

​Sarah Mcloughlin, Land and Development Consultant at deverellsmith, invited Nick Watson, Head of Strategic Business Development at Sovereign Housing Association, to talk about gender bias in development and how it affects place making. Nick was open, honest and knowledgeable on the topic, below are a few words from him and you can scroll to the bottom of the page to listen to the full epsiode.

On Monday of this week, in recognition of International Women’s Day I was delighted to spend some time with the team at deverellsmith to discuss the impact unconscious bias can have on the decisions we make – specifically in the context of gender bias in development and planning – you can listen to the podcast below.

The topic was inspired by the wonderful book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. Perez draws on a huge range of examples, not all from the world of planning, to make her points – prompting us to question how these decisions impact on the design and long-term use of spaces. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out exactly what we discussed, but let me whet your appetite with a question that I posed to Sarah in the podcast:

A father and a son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!” Explain?

Okay, so you may have seen this puzzle before – if you can’t suss it out, the answer’s in the podcast* but if I said to you that about 85% of people don’t reach the logical answer, that gives you an idea of the unconscious bias that we all have to deal with.

We can also draw inspiration and examples from Vienna’s gender planning team (yes, you read that right – a gender planning team – something that a lot of places could benefit from I suspect!) as well as some of the other example’s Perez offers up.

The Vienna team has been behind a number of changes made in the city to address unconscious gender bias. These include additional crossings, retrofitting steps with ramps and increased street lighting. Simple moves but with big impacts.

One of my favourite examples is the impact on how parks are used. Consider skate parks; statistics suggest that only 10% – 20% of users of these parks are girls. Similarly, single large open spaces are less appealing to girls – as are wire-fenced enclosed spaces – where the empirical data showed that girls were put off using the spaces as a result of boys tending to congregate around the entrance. This has implications for health and wellbeing as well as participation more generally. But this inherent gender design bias can be designed out – changes have been made in cities like Vienna, and the evidence is that smaller spaces worked better in encouraging girls to use the parks and green spaces – subdividing spaces and wider entrances worked. These are subtle differences, but with significant implications.

There are many more examples, ranging from the use of public transport to the design of buildings themselves – for instance, take the design of toilets in many public buildings. Typically, toilet facilities are equal in size for both genders. But, given anatomical differences, and the evidence that women are more likely to be carers, particularly for children, it would often make sense for female toilets to occupy a larger floor area and provide more facilities (on a like for like basis) then male toilets. But it is rare to see this logic applied to facilities.

As I say in the podcast, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but if it prompts us to think differently about how we consider design, development and planning decisions, this can only be a good thing. And it absolutely highlights the importance of diversity of thought and the impact it can have on the long-term success of the spaces we create.

About Nick Watson

Nick has worked for both public sector and private sector regeneration specialists and has a strong commitment to balancing the tensions between commercial, social, and physical outcomes associated with regeneration and development.  He has delivered social value programmes for the London Borough of Croydon, and helped to shape and deliver long term strategic development partnerships, in his last role at Places for People setting up a Joint Venture with National Grid. 

Prior to this he worked in the new business team at Lendlease, and has also held roles for small family run developers and in consultancy.  He recently joined Sovereign Housing Association to head up a new Strategic Business Development team, with a focus on estate regeneration, town centre and high street renewal and partnerships.  He is a member of the CIOB and RICS.  Nick has worked extensively in multi-disciplinary schemes, guiding development from land acquisition through to delivery.