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Home » How to Design Workplaces & Cities For Women: Virginia Santy (Transcript)

How to Design Workplaces & Cities For Women: Virginia Santy (Transcript)

Here is the full text and summary of Virginia Santy’s talk titled “How to Design Workplaces & Cities For Women” at TEDxMileHigh conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Virginia Santy – Strategic Communications Specialist

Do you feel comfortable? Really think about your experience right now. Are you too hot or too cold? How does your butt feel sitting in this chair? Do you feel safe? These questions might seem a little silly, but silly for different reasons depending on your gender identity.

We don’t really ask these questions of men because for the most part, we don’t have to. Our environments are built for men and how they experience the world. For you women, these questions are different because we are so conditioned to accept our own discomfort. To accept the environment or systems around us as normal and natural, we often fail to realize when they don’t quite fit us. We just work around it.

How many of you women are carrying a purse or a bag big enough to fit an extra sweater or a down comforter in case you get cold sometime today? The truth is, the world wasn’t built for women. In fact, in nearly every way, it’s been quite literally built for men. From Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to a concept called the Modular Man from the mid-20th century, we’ve used men’s bodies to measure what we feel is normal and appropriate in our world. Then we’ve used those measurements to build everything around us, from chairs and doorways to buildings and cars.

Women are, for the most part, not seen, not measured, not valued. This means the basic physical structures of our environment or the structures of our systems work against women in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This is exponentially true for women of color, women with disabilities, and women with intersectional identities.

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It was only 20 years ago we included female crash test dummies. It was only 1991 when we included women in medical trials. It is like we have only recently realized women aren’t men.

A few years ago, I started daydreaming about what it would look like to build an office space, a workplace for women. I was tired of freezing in sterile-feeling offices. I felt defeated by the woeful tales of moms who had to breast pump in bathroom stalls or coffee rooms.

I was sick and tired of feeling guilt or embarrassment for having to bring my baby to work with me a few hours every once in a while to compensate for some caregiving emergency or another. So I started talking to women and asking them what worked, what didn’t work in their spaces, and then I used that information to sketch out the perfect plan for a new workspace.

Women told me, office parking spaces are too narrow and a car seat with a kid in it is pretty bulky and inflexible, so we designed our space with ample parking and spots wide enough to open a car door all the way and take out a car seat. Women told us, simply entering a building can be frustrating. Have you ever walked up to a door and had to try a few times to get it open? You really had to throw your weight behind it? That’s because doors open more easily for men.

Literally, it is not just a metaphor anymore. Men have nine times the hand grip strength of women, making it physically easier for them to open doors and walk through them. So we reduced the force required to open our doors, making it easier for women to use them.

Moms told us, juggling work and children is their most difficult challenge. So instead of pretending workers are 100% autonomous agents with no human connection and children simply drop from the sky and raise themselves, we planned for on-site child care rooms, where moms could use our partner child care services or bring their kids to play while they worked. This all wasn’t just physical.

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From research, we learned women are most likely to attend a professional development event with a friend, so we made all learning social. These were all great things and the results were glorious. Women supported one another and collaborated across businesses and industries. They shared resources and recommendations, anecdotes and pep talks. We had built a place where women could unabashedly discuss that other scarlet letter capital A word for which they are so often judged and criticized, ambition. And find not only encouragement from others, but strategies.

We built a place where women felt valued and could therefore be themselves. And while I believe valuing women is the only argument we need for building places that work for them, there is also an economic argument. Today, there are more men than women in the workforce. In fact, women’s workforce participation is at the same level today as it was 30 years ago and the gap is only getting wider.

Building places of work where women feel comfortable and valued is one way to address this. If women worked at the same levels as men, the U.S. GDP would increase by 5% or $1 trillion. Globally we know when women are more financially secure, they invest more and more often in their families and communities.

Everything I’ve mentioned so far are things you can do at home, in your workplaces. But we need to think bigger too and design for women on a larger scale. Can we design whole cities to serve women? That’s the question that inspired my work for the Downtown Denver Partnership.

The first thing I learned is that women aren’t really on the radar of city builders. 94% of U.S. cities have city plans, yet only 2% of those plans include any mention of women. And if women aren’t on the radar, it means their distinct experiences aren’t on the radar either.

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Care work is a useful illustration. Women spend 37% more time per day on household chores or caregiving activities than men. And this doesn’t end with children. The average caregiver for an older adult is a 49-year-old woman who works full time outside the home and spends an extra 20 hours a week caring for a family member. If this is the reality for women, how can we redesign our cities to better serve them? Most city centers are child care deserts, despite a growing number of young families who live and work downtown.

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