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A woman stands still looking up at the sky in front of an office building, surrounded by blurred figures
Women use energy in different ways to men. Shutterstock

If we want to build truly sustainable cities, we need to think about how women use energy and space

Women and men balance their different responsibilities in different ways, something the pandemic has brought into sharp relief. But that isn’t always considered by those designing buildings. In fact, buildings designed without considering gender often benefit men and disadvantage women by default.

On top of this are sustainability concerns around how much energy buildings use. To meet COP26 targets, energy efficiency of buildings will have to improve by 30% by 2030. But if that’s to happen, gender needs to be accounted for.

Buildings contribute to about 40% of global energy consumption and about one third of greenhouse gas emissions, figures that are predicted to continue increasing.

Yet research shows that even when buildings are fitted with low-energy tech such as double-glazed windows and heat recovery systems, they can still end up using about three times more energy than originally predicted. This variation is down to the behaviour of the people occupying those buildings: factors not always taken into account by designers.

My research with colleagues on gender and energy access in developing countries, including Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Ghana, has uncovered three key factors that result in women not having the same access to energy compared to men – a situation that makes achieving sustainability all the more challenging.

A woman wearing a red cardigan and jeans loads the dishwasher in a kitchen.
Women tend to take on the burden of household chores. Shutterstock

Research has shown that men and women use energy in different ways, thanks to the way labour is traditionally divided between them. Even today in most societies across the world, men tend to be considered the heads of their households and are frequently the breadwinners for their family.

Yet women are responsible for at least 2.5 times more unpaid domestic work than men. They undertake the majority of household chores and care work, including cooking, cleaning and laundry, child rearing and elderly care – which is where most of their energy use at home usually goes.

In contrast, men are far more likely to use domestic energy for comfort, convenience and entertainment – such as lighting, fans, air conditioning, computers and TV. And women also tend to be more responsible than men when it comes to energy use, often making more eco-friendly choices like using less air conditioning.

Not gender neutral

The first of the three factors we found is that we still don’t have enough gender-specific data showing exactly how and when women need energy. Second, women are underrepresented in the energy sector. According to the International Energy Agency, women account for only 22% of energy workers, with even lower numbers in management.

Read more: Transport apps are being hailed as a sustainable alternative to driving: but they're not female-friendly

And third, energy policies that try to be gender neutral usually leave women’s energy needs marginalised. Without explicitly designing energy systems to benefit women as well as men, we often end up with situations where, for example, limited domestic electricity connections and scheduled power cuts have greater impacts on women’s daily routines.

When it comes to urban planning and development, gender also plays a significant role in achieving sustainability. Even though women will make up the majority of urban citizens in the coming decades – with increasing numbers of female-run households – they still face a huge number of barriers in their everyday life in cities.

Part of this has to do with how, according to geographers Sylvia Chant and Cathy McIlwaine, cities around the world are still “overwhelmingly designed by and for men”. When it comes to public access, not only do women often have more complex travel patterns than men thanks to their unpaid care work, they also have a harder time accessing or feeling safe on transport.

A balcony with glass doors on the left, with plants around its edges
Balconies like this offer no private space for women to carry out activities. Rihab Khalid, Author provided

Yet my research with my colleague Maiss Razem shows that even private domestic spaces are often not designed for women, with implications for sustainability. For example, in Pakistan and Jordan, contemporary housing usually follows Westernised modernist designs, with increasing reliance on mechanical ventilation and cooling.

Building regulations in these countries also tend to put restrictions on the heights of walls and roof parapets, often for aesthetic purposes. This means that outdoor spaces are frequently exposed with low walls, meaning that women – who must adhere to cultural codes of modesty – cannot work or relax outdoors in private.

That means women are forced to limit their time spent outdoors. Instead of drying clothes outside, for example, they use indoor tumble dryers, and as a result have to turn on air conditioning and lighting: all contributing to unnecessary energy use.

What’s more, even indoor spaces are now also designed to imitate popular Western building styles, including open-plan designs with large glass windows. This means they not only increase heat inside buildings (meaning more air con is required), but also end up restricting more religious women’s private access to indoor space.

A balcony viewed from the left, with other houses facing it across the street
Neighbouring windows often overlook domestic outdoor spaces, meaning women mostly feel forced inside to work. Rihab Khalid, Author provided

Planning regulations also tend to prevent mixed-use buildings, where shops or offices sit on the ground floor below people’s homes. But since women already have limited access to public employment, preventing women from working from home means it’s even harder for them to earn money.

Such exclusionary housing policies have a long history of discrimination. And their continued “gender neutrality” means that we are still far from building what urban historian Dolores Hayden imagined as the “non-sexist city”, designed to allow women’s social and economic empowerment.

Energy, gender and space are closely interlinked. Only by investigating how they intersect can we truly begin to move towards creating sustainable societies.

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