Lucie OBrien
Thursday, 13 August 2020

Rethinking our cities is vital to gender equality

Some parents now in their thirties and forties will remember Kim Beazley’s pledge to end ‘the dreaded “double drop-off”’.  This phrase was a striking feature of his budget reply speech in 2006, his last as Opposition Leader.  It referred to something that was totally abstract to me at the time: the journey from the suburbs to the city, at the apex of the morning peak, punctuated by multiple stops to deliver young children to school and daycare centres along the way. 

In the time since, many of my generation have been inducted into the daily ritual of the double drop-off.  We’ve had plenty of time to reflect on Beazley’s words, and what might have been, while sitting in our cars on the freeways and major arterial roads of our cities.  We’ve long since abandoned public transport, despite our anxieties about climate change.  With trains and trams packed, the idea of struggling on board with a pram, toddler, baby and multiple backpacks isn’t feasible.  There just isn’t room for all of us, and anyway, daycare centres are rarely within walking distance of a tram stop or train station.  For me and many others, a 90-minute car trip is still the quickest and least stressful option.  But it only takes a breakdown on the freeway, or some unexpected roadworks, to make us wonder how much longer we can keep it up.

The pressure of commuting is a significant brake on workforce participation, particularly for women.  This is both a gender issue and a socio-economic one, as it hits some women harder than others.  For families living in the more affordable outer suburbs, the commute – and the stress and fatigue it entails – can make it unviable for both parents to work.  This means one parent, usually the woman, stays at home, missing out on the economic, social and psychological benefits that come with employment.

This problem is endemic to any city with a central business district, containing the best paid and most desirable jobs, with residential suburbs radiating outwards from it.  As feminist geographers have long observed, this layout is a product of the industrial revolution, when we first saw a rigid division between men’s role as paid workers outside the home and women’s unpaid role as carers and consumers within it.  This model has come under increasing pressure as women have entered the workforce in large numbers.  Ask any working parent who has done the double drop-off and she or he will tell you: this urban model is completely broken. 

COVID-19 has forced many of us to change our working patterns. From now on, working from home may offer a partial reprieve for some fortunate white-collar workers, but it’s not enough.  For many lower-income earners, especially those in female-dominated service industries, working from home is not an option.  We need other, more equitable strategies to ease the burden of commuting.  These should include building more kindergartens and daycare centres on school grounds, as is already occurring in some newer suburbs.

Just as importantly, we need to reconfigure our working lives.  We need to normalise shorter working days, more closely aligned with school opening hours, for all parents of young children.  This would enable more parents to avoid the worst of the morning and afternoon peaks.  It would also allow us to engage properly with our children every night, instead of getting through the door after dark and rushing through dinner, baths and story time at breakneck speed, with the sole aim of getting everyone to sleep as soon as possible.  Such changes are critical if we are to achieve greater gender equality in the workplace. Women are still more likely than men to structure their working lives around their family responsibilities.  They are more likely to cut back on work if the pressure of the double drop-off becomes too much to bear.

At the same time, we need to make profound changes to the way we inhabit and imagine our cities.  We can do this, in part, by creating more secure, high quality jobs outside the central business districts.  This is vital if we want to resolve the currently intractable conflict between work and family life.  

More fundamentally, we need to adopt a more inclusive approach to urban planning, one that acknowledges the crucial importance of unpaid caring work.  This is already occurring in cities like Barcelona, where architects and planners are creating public spaces explicitly designed for women.  These inclusive spaces challenge the privileged status of paid work, and paid workers, in the public sphere.  Instead, they are built to meet the needs of women (and men) who care, as well as the people who receive this care: children, the elderly and people of different abilities.  

These kinds of urban spaces can do much to make the often-invisible work of caring less isolating, ‘more collective, less exhausting and more equitable’. As we rebuild our society, after the devastation wrought by COVID-19, new forms of urban planning have an important role to play in promoting gender equality, cultivating social connection and enabling all of us to fulfil our potential.

About Lucie OBrien:

Lucie O’Brien is a Research Fellow at a Melbourne university. She has two children, aged three and five.