Walking in the middle of the street

Content warning: The following article discusses sexual assault.  

So, here’s the thing. When I ask people if they have ever walked in the middle of the road, the women all nod. They know what I’m talking about.  

I’m yet to meet a woman who has never chosen to cross the street to the brightest footpath or to walk in the middle of the road when alone in the night. 

Because the middle of the road is brighter than the edges. It’s harder to pull you into a car or a doorway. You can kick a car and the alarm will have more people come to your aid than if you scream, and if someone is walking behind you or towards you in the middle of the road, you know you are in trouble. You need help. 

Why is this important? This International Women’s Day (IWD) I’ve started to think about what we can do to change the world we are in. On IWD friends and colleagues celebrate the progress women have made and recognize the work still to be done to close the gap on gender equality.  

The difficulty with this framing is it often comes with a narrative about women succeeding within the current structure rather than altering it. These structures are often discriminatory by design.  Just look at our parliament

My experiences growing up meant I had faith in the system – I didn’t experience the injustices others have. However, I’ve realised that our systems and the people who have to work in them and those that are impacted by them are failed. I thought, and still think, trial by media is wrong. But just as the media and call out culture can be emotional and retaliative, the legal system is a blunt instrument without compassion. Either way women and our society as a whole lose.   

I do not want to applaud more courageous woman. I want to redesign the system so women don’t need to be courageous.  

So what can we do. Now. Today? 

These things we speak of can seem so difficult to solve. Yet, in our practice every day, we see organisations and individuals stepping up. The inclusive design process, especially in our codesign model makes this easier than you’d think. When we design inclusively – we hear the experiences of others and we learn from them.   

Here are just four small things which will make a huge difference. They could, if people were willing, quickly change this story

  1. Find out what people actually want rather than doing what you think is best for them 

We don’t need to have experienced something to understand it’s not okay. The way to really make change is to listen to what people who have experienced difficulty or trauma, say they need (note: this is different to asking them about what happened), and then start the design process from there.  

  1. Work out what type of change you are going for 

When making change, be clear about the end goal. Are you looking for incremental change within the current system, or a paradigm shift, which is, a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumption? For instance, having a unisex-ambulant toilet as well as male and female toilets, is a change to our current system. Inclusive toilets designed totally differently would be a structural shift. We need both.  

If we don’t know what we are looking for and lack resources to make changes, when we ask people for their opinions, we’ll get it wrong. For example, if you asked me what we needed to do so I wouldn’t have to walk in the middle of the road, the answers could be anything from better lighting, to judo classes for primary schools, to designing out sexism. For an engineer working for a council, trying to make a difference, regardless of their gender, some of those answers won’t lead to results, just frustration. 

  1. Be intentional about who’s insight is needed 

Regardless of the issue, we need to ensure that all players are part of the solution. If considering violence against women for example, women have deep experiences of the consequences of male violence and the problems in the system when it comes to support. Men have more experience in the factors that lead to male violence,  and the people who have committed violence understand the causes of it. We get a better picture when working together. The same can be said of any issue from recruitment, to promotion, to product design. 

  1. Diversity, not assimilation  

It’s not enough to have women on your team if you want them to act and behave in the same ways as it’s always been done.   

We want more women who are lawyers, CEOs, scientists and politicians. But it won’t solve anything if we don’t change the complex biased system we operate in. Organisations need to look at what inclusive culture and leadership mean and how to engage in both listening and actioning different voices. If your organisation values include disruption, then you are on the journey. If what you value is how much people like each other then you may need to do some work.  

These changes may seem complex, but in our practice, we find that the hardest step is the first one. 

The world is not created to be equal. If women succeed without a redesign of the things failing us, then we will be part of the problem not the solution. 

Every single step we take toward changing the system is a step that helps us walk on the pavement at night. Every step is a step closer to a world where courageous women aren’t talking about violence and inequity but rather courageous communities that value and optimize difference and support us when we are vulnerable and powerless. 

Every step is a step towards future ways of living, working and learning inclusively.  

So, what path will you take?  

If you would like to know more about how to take action or to join us in this conversation, please reach out. We are on this journey together. 

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