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Women and planning during COVID-19

04 June 2020 | By Jenna Dutton, Member of the CAP Women in Planner Network

This year the advent of International Women’s Day came at a time when most countries across the globe were contemplating lockdown measures to ensure physical distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19. The announcement by UN Women[i] in early March that the progress towards gender equality is lagging was subsequently overshadowed by the mass media surge on the global crisis. Over the past months it has become increasingly clear that the decades of work that have been done to move the dial forward has quickly reverted back due to a lack of effective action. How can we harness the lessons learned during and post pandemic recovery and plan for cities that continuously strive for gender equality and inclusivity?

For the past 11 weeks I had the opportunity to participate in an online systems course with 3 other group members. With these friends from Brazil, France, and Denmark we had the task of analyzing a complex system. Having recently finished reading the book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, I was struck by an example of post disaster management in Gujarat, a state in western India. As communities began to rebuild after an earthquake, the majority of housing had been destroyed and new homes were needed. Given that women were not included or consulted in the process, homes were constructed entirely without kitchens, thereby impacting essential daily tasks[ii] (p.575). This example, in addition to similar stories from group members, resulted in us choosing the complex system of gender equality for disaster management in informal settlements. As none of us had direct experience with this topic, the process involved research and evolving iterations of a systems map and included feedback from practitioners with applicable experience. Overall the main takeaways from the systems exercise were that gender inequality was pervasive throughout all levels of society. Therefore, broader lasting changes are required to ensure pre and post disaster management is improved. This has been prominent previously where “women’s care-taking responsibilities also have more deadly consequences for women in pandemics. Women do the majority of care for the sick at home” (Criado Perez, p. 592).

Globally, women make up 70% of healthcare workers. In the United States, although women made up 49% of the overall workforce prior to the pandemic they have accounted for 55% of the job losses in April[iii] . In Canada 80% of non-profit and charity workers are women and a recent Canadian Women’s Foundation survey[iv] found that 82% of organizations fear they may have to close their doors due to COVID-19. In a handful of countries including New Zealand, Germany, Finland, and Taiwan, Province of China, exemplary female leadership at a national level has finally received some deserving attention[v]. At many other levels however, the disproportionate inequality has expanded the cracks in our systems. In Academia, women have noticeably been publishing less[vi] and, in the UK, public backlash against scientific advice have further reduced the potential to have brilliant women [vii] experts participate in panels and events. Across the entire world, women in parenting or other care-giving roles have been taking on additional full-time roles, while in many cases continuing to juggle full-time work. For many women, the work-life balance that was already skewed against our gender is even more precarious at a time with increased uncertainty and toll on our well-being and mental health. In February 2020, the Royal Town Planning Institute published a report on Women and Planning [viii] based on a study that aptly notes that “while gender equality is crucial to all parts of society, it is particularly essential to planning because the lack of gender diversity affects not only the way we design and plan, but also who we design and plan for.” UN Habitat and the UN Secretary General have also since stated that a gendered response to COVID-19 is an absolute necessity.

Along with their March press release UN Women included an inspiring image of Equitera[ix], where gender equality is real and Sustainable Development Goal 5 is achieved. The vibrant illustration by Ruby Taylor reflects an imaginary place that we can aspire to build. Rampant gender inequality across the world has become glaringly obvious in the face of COVID-19. In response, places like Hawaii have already adopted a feminist recovery plan[x] in hopes of “building a system that is capable of delivering gender equality”. As planners and city builders, we have tremendous opportunity to advance planning to create cities that are no longer just a colorful, imaginary concept or visionary statement in a policy document. We have the chance to harness the cross-disciplinary partnerships and innovation that have resulted from this global crisis to truly achieve an equitable recovery. By shifting processes to focus on co-benefits and requiring methods such as Gender Based Analysis [xi]  (GBA+) in all policies, programs and services we can prioritize planning that results in more equitable and resilient communities for all members of society. – Jenna Dutton





[ii]  Perez, C. C. (2019). Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men [E-reader version]. Retrieved from






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