English - Samfunn

Cities are Gendered

Tekst: Alina Karlsen

At first, it might seem far-fetched to think that these common city matters are gendered. However, once examining them through a gendered lens it will not only become clear why they are gendered but also why they, in turn, are political matters. Snow clearing schedules, the number of public bathrooms and the materials staircases are made of all involve some form of decision-making. When decision-making power in a municipality, or even over a single building, is concentrated within a certain demographic, they become biased. The examples in this piece demonstrate the consequences of such bias and problematise it. 

Snow clearing

  • noun [ clear·​ing | \ ˈsnō, ˈklir-iŋ  \ ]

1: The job of removing snow after a snowfall to make travel easier and safer, done by both individual households and by governments and institutions

In Sweden, feminists have highlighted that most Swedish municipalities clear snow in ways that benefit men and discriminate against women. Often, snow clearing efforts concentrate on areas that, due to overarching discriminatory structures, are frequented by men. Meanwhile, areas that are primarily used by women are placed low on the priority list or neglected entirely. As a result, middle-class men who travel to work in their personal cars have likely benefitted from roads being cleared of excessive amounts of snow. Sidewalks, paths to daycare centres, and bus stops, where women continue to make up most users, have at times been difficult to access – especially with a stroller or young child. 

A common denominator of cities is that they are gendered. That is, they are not experienced the same by people of different gender identities. In this piece, we discuss some of the gendered aspects of city planning and design. This piece is a contribution by THIS IS GENDERED – the first ever feminist encyclopedia. THIS IS GENDERED seeks to demonstrate all the ways in which the world is gendered, in A-Z order. Here we discuss three topics covered in the encyclopedia: snow clearing, urinals, and staircases. 

In 2013, the Swedish city of Karlskoga implemented gender-equal snow clearing. Accessibility to daycares, schools and walk paths was prioritised during periods of heavy snowfall. The new policy reaped results, and even saved the city money! As many estimates in Sweden have shown, pedestrian accidents due to icy conditions can be twice to three times as expensive as proper snow clearing. The new system benefitted a range of social groups, but this did not stop critics from blaming feminism for the traffic chaos caused by the heavy snowfall in Stockholm in 2016. Critics claimed that pressures from feminists to change snow clearing policies led to resources being misused and directed away from roads and highways. 

These critics appeared to be very uncomfortable with the idea of snow clearing being a truly gendered issue, and seemed to claim that it had been made into a gendered issue by feminists. To give them some benefit of the doubt, snow clearing is not only a gendered issue: It is a manifestation of multiple intersecting axes of oppression. Not only women are less likely to drive to work in their own car on a snow cleared road. The same goes for people with lower incomes and people living in poorly connected areas – where People of Colour are generally overrepresented due to segregation practices, among other things. Privilege based on gender, class and race determines which spaces we visit and how we access them. Snow clearing, and the lack thereof, highlights these patterns as spaces used by dominant social groups tend to be prioritised in matters of city planning. Urinals are no exception. 


  • noun [ uri·nal | \ ˈyər-ə-nᵊl  , ˈyu̇r-, British also yu̇-ˈrī-nᵊl \ ]

1: A vessel for receiving urine

2a: A building or enclosure with facilities for urinating

b: A fixture used for urinating

If you go to the website of the municipality of Amsterdam, you can find a beautiful map of all the public bathrooms in the city. It won’t take long until you realise that people with penises have about twice as many options as people with vaginas for where to pee. In 2017, a young woman went to Court after being fined for peeing in a quiet street while friends were keeping watch. At the time, Amsterdam had 35 urinals available for people with penises while there were only three public bathrooms for people with vaginas in the city. In court, the woman was told she could have used the urinals designed for people with penises and was not exempt from the fine. The decision sparked protests as the pee curls, which they are called, are completely open from the ground up to about 50 cm, making them practically impossible for people with vaginas to use without exposing themselves, if used squatting. 

In India, public urinals are generally free for men to use while women are often charged with a fee ranging from one to five rupees to use a public bathroom. In Mumbai, three out of four public toilets are designated for men. Many of the supposedly «free» toilets are manned by workers who charge illegal fees and collect the profits for themselves. Women are told that their toilets require more resources than urinals as they need a squat toilet, doors for privacy and access to water. This is also a class issue. While wealthy women can often pop into a restaurant to relieve themselves while shopping or running errands, the average Indian woman is likely to encounter discrimination if they try to do the same. 

The accessibility and design of urinals and public bathrooms relate to a central target of feminist theory and debate, namely the public/private divide. The patriarchal order privileges the public sphere and associates this with men, while women are associated with the private sphere. Consciously and unconsciously, this translates to cismen often being accommodated in their public needs, while the needs of people with another or no gender are excluded in matters of city planning and design. 

In the UK, various proposals for female urinals have been rejected because they expose women in public – ironic, considering that is exactly what happens when you decide to place glass staircases in public spaces.


  • noun [ stair·case | \ ˈster-ˌkās  \ ]

1: The structure containing a stairway

2: A flight of stairs with the supporting framework, casing, and balusters

Iconic to many Apple stores is the spiral glass staircase. Looks cool. Very sleek, very Apple-ish. It’s less cool, though, if you want to get to the first floor and you’re wearing a skirt. There may be people standing underneath the stairs peeking at your butt. Or worse: taking a picture with their brand-new iPhones. Did no one think of this issue when they designed the staircase? Apparently not. And the Apple store is not the only place where you can find transparent or reflective stairs and floors. An Ohio judge warned people wearing skirts for the glass staircase in the courthouse where she works. The courthouse frequently sentences sex offenders, so a glass staircase is clearly out of place here – or so you would say. 

Other important public buildings with glass floors or staircases include the Nicanor Parra Library at Diego Portales University in Santiago (Chile) and the Hong Kong International Airport. Transparent and reflective floors are so common in Hong Kong that the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong created a list of 17 spots that pose a risk of upskirting: secretly taking photos or recording videos under skirts. 

This shows that some architects are more concerned with the aesthetics of their design than with creating spaces that are accessible to everyone. And by everyone, we mean everyone who chooses to wear a skirt, including people who, by wearing a skirt, break expectations based on their assumed gender. 

Why are these buildings so user-unfriendly? Perhaps because the architects designing them expect users to be cismen – like themselves. Architecture is still a male-dominated field, which results in blind spots like these. In fact, architecture schools themselves are the tangible proof of male-centred norms: several schools have see-through floors and stairs, such as the City College of New York and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Like many other professional fields, architecture would benefit from greater involvement of people from underprivileged and marginalised groups. 

Do you want to know more about how cities are gendered? Visit the encyclopedia and check out the category public spaces to learn how borders, changing tables, sinks, office temperatures and Google Maps are all gendered things we deal with in a city.