Designing equality on campus

Designing equality on campus

University: where gendered power structures and architectural design collides - a piece by Maddie Spencer.

Space can be sexist. I’m not talking about black holes, stars and planets space, but rather the spaces we live, work and move through every day. The features of a space can influence our attitudes, our behaviours and how we interact with each other without us even recognising it. And no example is more relevant than our university campuses.

“University campuses are miniature cities,” says Associate Professor Nicole Kalms, head of the XYX Lab at Monash University. The Lab’s work examines gender-sensitive design practices and theory, bringing together a host of decision makers to showcase the experiences of the underrepresented, whether it be women, girls, people of colour, dis/abled people, non-binary people or the LGBTQIA+ community.

The Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at University Campuses, published in 2017, has shown the extent of sexual harassment and violence in university settings. Just over half of university students reported harassment on at least one occasion in 2016 and just under 7% of students experienced assault in 2015 or 2016. These statistics show the alarming rates at which students are at risk, and speak to a culture of fear that pervades tertiary campuses.

And who can blame us? With names such as Eurydice Dixon, Aiia Maasarwe and more recently Natalina Angok in the headlines, it’s hard not to fear what will happen if we go out with friends, walk through campus alone or just catch the train home. It’s time we start considering the power that design has in creating and reinforcing a culture of gendered harassment and violence on our campuses.

I’m sure that on your walk through campus, it won’t be too long before you find something named after a dead white man. A monument, plaque, room, lecture hall or building. Most of the time we don’t pay that much attention to it, but subconsciously it could be having a greater impact on how we behave. Not only does it serve as a constant reminder to women that the odds are stacked against them (even more so for WOC and queer or trans people): it also reminds men of their power in these institutions, often founded in patriarchy. It reminds men that they are likelier to be celebrated and can give them an inflated sense of confidence. Without even noticing, we are being conditioned to recognise that men’s achievements are more notable than women’s.

It’s time we start considering the power that design has in creating and reinforcing a culture of gendered harassment and violence on our campuses.

A great example of this is the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus. While there is some effort to celebrate women (Elisabeth Murdoch, Alice Hoy), and new buildings are less commonly being named after people (such as Arts West and the Melbourne School of Design), there is still an abundance of facilities and monuments named after men. Now I’m sure that many of these people have made great accomplishments. I’m just not convinced that there’s not that many women or people of colour who have done something equally noteworthy.

“Power dynamics are really clear: when institutional buildings are named after men, when all the monuments are only about the achievements of men and the universities are indeed named after men, that communicates where the power lies,” says Nicole Kalms. And you don’t have to look far to see the consequences of this power imbalance. Change the Course cited numerous examples of misogyny in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering Maths and Medicine) fields. Stories were detailed of lecturers not even bothering to learn their female students’ names; a female PhD student being told that she only won an award because the judges wanted to sleep with her; and female students feeling that their achievements were continuously discredited against those of their male peers.

Kalms rightly suggests that “universities need to reflect and model how we want students to behave, and what we want them to value in the real world.” What kind of message are we receiving where virtually everything of importance is named after a man? I’m not saying building names are solely responsible for on-campus misogyny, but they are certainly an aspect that can’t be ignored, especially when universities hold diversity and inclusion as key pillars of their institution.

Some newer campuses, such as RMIT and Monash Caulfield, opt to move away from the gendered buildings trend altogether, numbering their buildings instead of naming them. Whilst there still might be monuments, rooms or halls named after people, this approach implements far better gender-sensitive design.

“Universities need to reflect and model how we want students to behave, and what we want them to value in the real world.”

Associate Professor Nicole Kalms

The issue doesn’t stop at plaques or lecture halls, however, the naming of institutions themselves can add to this damaging culture, particularly for Indigenous students. In Australia, there is only one university named after a women, but numerous are named after colonisers, responsible for the destruction of Indigenous cultures and peoples. James Cook, Charles Sturt, Matthew Flinders – men who have a hand in a cycle of trauma still being felt by Aboriginal communities. More broadly, consider how many monuments, highways, roads, towns, rivers and lakes are named after people responsible for one of the most horrific genocides in history. 9am tutes are hard enough without a constant reminder of your ancestral trauma and oppression at the hands of white Australia.

The absence of a gender sensitive design approach to our campuses can also be seen in their recreational spaces, which are often modeled through a purely masculine perspective. When I think of recreational spaces on campus, I think of soccer fields, gyms, basketball courts, but it’s rare that I see women enjoying these spaces. A handful of times I’ve seen women in the gym; I’ve never seen a woman on a community basketball court or oval on their own. That is not to say that women are inherently less interested in sport than men: it’s just that men have a certain claim over these spaces that makes it less likely for women to use them.

Nicole Kalms finds that in designing these spaces, the differences in how men and women recreate and their needs around socialising have not been considered. Whilst I haven’t seen women on the basketball court, I do often see women training for team sports like athletics, softball or netball, or in exercise classes in the gym. Women still have a desire to exercise and play sport but the way that they go about it is very different. Most recreational spaces on campus are built with men’s perspectives and desires at the forefront, making them the primary beneficiaries of these spaces.

Women’s Officer at Monash University, Meg Wright, says that having spaces like cafes that are avidly inclusive of women and queer people aids the feeling of safety on campuses. And of course, many universities have women’s only or queer only spaces, allowing women to read, study and relax in a safe environment.

Having a women’s room doesn’t necessarily solve any problem though; the fact is that spaces built to accommodate the ways that women recreate should be integrated more fully into campus design. These should not only meet the needs of women, but recognise but also how people of colour, international students, as well as queer and transgender people choose to recreate and socialise.

The natural claim to spaces that men have can cause fear and discomfort for women moving through campus. Campuses’ layouts and safety features, such as signage and lighting, can vastly shape women’s feelings of security. Particularly in the University of Melbourne and RMIT’s campuses, there are many narrow pathways between tall buildings, limiting the flow of natural light. There is also a trend of poor signage, blind corners and poor artificial lighting that automatically puts women on their guard in these spaces.

And this fear can influence affect women’s choices about how they get home. What could be a 15 minute walk becomes a costly Uber ride to avoid a poorly lit part of campus. Instead of studying at uni at night or opting for classes at a later time, women could go home early to avoid being on campus at night. These decisions that women face every day that are not even a consideration for their male counterparts.

Campuses like RMIT and Melbourne Uni have the benefit of being in or near the CBD, meaning access to public transport networks and businesses is available. Campuses such as Monash Clayton, however, present different issues, according to Meg Wright.

Instead of studying at uni at night or opting for classes at a later time, women could go home early to avoid being on campus at night.

“There is definitely a fear of being on campus late,” says Meg. “Compared to other suburbs, Clayton is very unsafe for students no matter their gender, with very high rates of assault and robbery.” As such, Meg is working with local city councils to enhance lighting and carparks, as well as engaging with pubs and venues around the university to improve their response to female students who are being harassed in their venues.

Aside from engendering fear, gender-insensitive design practices can impact women’s daily functions. I have lost count how many times I have been standing in a line for a female bathroom on campus, about to burst. The design of many female bathrooms ignores the needs of women and their ablutions. Perhaps the introduction of gender neutral toilets could remedy this: if men start to be affected by long waits in queues, maybe something be done about it.

More importantly, however, gender neutral toilets finally cater to trans people, who may be apprehensive about using their gender’s toilet, and non-binary people, who have been constantly forced to occupy a space that doesn’t align with their gender identity. The hate and violence that trans people endure as a response to their mere presence seems rarely considered in the design process of bathrooms.

And, of course, after you finish classes and moving through campus, there’s the ordeal of getting home safely. The XYX Lab and Plan International Australia showed this as an area of concern in their Free to Be campaign: women in Melbourne and Sydney, as well as select cities worldwide, could drop “happy” and “sad” pins on a digital map and share their experience of what made this a safe or an unsafe space for them. This data illustrated that public transport facilities and hubs are hotspots for sexual harassment. Melbourne University’s recent study, Tertiary students’ public transport safety in Melbourne Australia,also suggests this. According to this research, 79.4% of female students have been subject to sexual harassment on public transport.

As a result, fear has been instilled about using public transport, with 45.1% of females reporting feeling rarely or never safe on public transport after dark. In a Melbourne winter, it is almost certain that you will have to catch public transport after dark as a university student. This means that a large portion of university students fear for their safety, just on their daily commute.

More gender-sensitive and nuanced design approaches must be incorporated in university settings, if we are ever going to be rid of the culture of fear and sexism on campus. People like Nicole and Meg are bringing these issues to the forefront of discourse on gender equality in urban space. But if universities do not actively change their ways – be it through gestures as large as adapting recreational spaces to suit women, or as small as renaming buildings – stamping out institutional sexism and misogyny experienced on campus will be much harder.

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