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“We’ve got a responsibility to include different perspectives in the way we design and build our living, working and community spaces so that they allow everyone to contribute and flourish”

How would cities look if women built them?

Our urban spaces would be more inclusive environments if more women were actively involved in all aspects of the construction industry, according to National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) president Donna Howell.

“The environment we live and work in shapes us, and if these spaces are predominantly designed and built by men, we’re narrowing our perspective,” she says. “Most of the decision-makers in the construction industry are men. We’re not creating spaces which encourage diversity and embrace a balanced viewpoint.”
Donna Howell, president of the National Association of Women in Construction NZ

Donna, who is a project manager and registered architect, says that throughout her career, most teams she’s worked with have been 90% male, and she believes that this ultimately leads to an imbalance in our built spaces.

“It’s a fact that teams in New Zealand’s construction industry are predominantly composed of white males. This equates to a limited section of society making decisions on the shape of our built environment for a broad group of people whose interests they cannot adequately represent. It’s not a democratic process.”

Having more women involved would lead to a more balanced environment which would in turn be more reflective of society as a whole, according to Donna. “When you consider the different traits men and women bring to the table, including different approaches to the design process and to construction contracting, I think we’d create better outcomes – more balanced cities, towns and urban spaces and potentially a more productive industry – if we had more women involved.”

Inclusive spaces for everyone

If more women were at the forefront of construction projects, Donna says, it would provide more diversity in terms of the look and design of built spaces. “Men tend to be driving major construction projects, both in the public and private sector. This results in the predominance of particular types of developments, often lacking consideration for how it feels to live or work in that environment. The community and collaborative aspect is often overlooked.”

Donna is quick to point out that her argument for a more diverse built environment is not about sexism, but is focused on creating inclusive spaces for everyone. “It’s about creating spaces that reflect who we are as a society. We’ve got a responsibility to include different perspectives in the way we design and build our living, working and community spaces so that they allow everyone to contribute and flourish,” she notes.

“New Zealand is becoming a more diverse country and we need to celebrate this by creating built environments that reflect this broadening of who we are as a society. This can only happen if we have a mix of different types of people leading construction projects.”

Europe is already exploring the concept of creating ‘fairer shared cities’ which examine the impact of gender on the built environment. Donna hopes that New Zealand will engage in more discussion and debate around this important issue, particularly given the current building boom.

“We’re seeing increasing numbers of women working in the construction industry, particularly in the Christchurch rebuild, but I don’t think this is yet reflected either in the participation of women at the decision-making level or in the physical built environment,” she comments.

“If more women were making decisions about the nature of the industry and influencing the shape of the built environment, we would start to reverse this imbalance and create urban spaces which more accurately reflect our society. Ideally, we’ll see increased participation leading to a greater focus on humanist design and spaces created around communities which reflect the diversity of our population.”

A human-centric approach

Trailblazers include winners at the recent Hays NAWIC Excellence Awards who are providing much-needed inspiration for change when it comes to creating inclusive built environments, says Donna.

Sarah Bryant, who received a highly commended award for outstanding achievement in design, exemplifies this with her passion for creating spaces that enable people to be the best they can be in terms of a mind, body and soul experience.

“Sarah creates spaces which promote wellness and are restorative – this shows the potential to change the dialogue we have with our built environment so that we don’t have to force ourselves to adapt and change, but rather embrace spaces which actually make us feel welcome, relaxed and refreshed,” Donna notes.

Karen Sanderson, who was a joint winner in the professional woman of the year category, is also driven by a human-centric approach, putting people at the centre of her work. “By focusing on creating spaces that appeal and connect with a wide range of people, Karen makes a real connection with a broader community that more accurately reflects our diverse society. Putting people first benefits everyone,” says Donna.

NAWIC events such as the annual awards and a panel discussion on the impact of gender on the balance sheet are helping to shine a light on how men and women can work together to create a more balanced community-enhancing environment. “We want to move beyond thinking that just having more women in the construction industry is enough. It’s much more than that – we need female leaders in positions of influence to be a driving force for change,” she adds.

“Redressing this imbalance will help create a more productive and responsive construction industry, and a more balanced built environment which will in turn provide positive benefits for communities. Men and women need to collaborate to achieve this goal. Together we have the diverse perspectives needed to redress the current imbalance and to create buildings and spaces which truly reflect the needs, values and aspirations of our communities.”


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