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Applying equality through sustainable development

08 March 2020

On International Women's Day, Dawn Bonfield, MBE and UK representative on the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) Women in Engineering Committee, argues that the engineering profession cannot align to sustainable development goals until women have equal opportunities, both within the profession, and as a result of engineering projects.

Applying equality through sustainable development
Women must have equal opportunities, both within the profession and as a result of engineering projects

Since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, we’ve seen an increased focus on sustainable development aligned to the global challenges within engineering.

On International Women's Day, we take a look at what can be done by engineering and technology to address some of the disproportional disadvantages that women face?

Positions of power and influence

Women’s role in society globally is very much determined by factors such as their social status in a particular country or culture, the responsibilities that go with that role, their access to knowledge, land and property, and their influence in positions of power and decision making. Women's ability to play an equitable role in society, earn a living, influence decisions, and have access to equal opportunities can be significantly increased through the use of engineering and technology.

SDG 5: (Gender Equality) encourages us to enhance the use of enabling technology to promote the empowerment of women, and ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making. In our sector, we must work to integrate a gender perspective into all aspects of planning, design and evaluation, with a view to promoting equality between women and men, and combating this disproportional discrimination.

With a focus on SDG 6: (Clean water and sanitation) by involving more women in decision making processes around WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) infrastructure and service delivery, civil engineers can ensure their projects are designed with everyone in mind. Consistently measured gender-specific indicators and dis-aggregated WASH data is important for monitoring progress on the SDGs.

Inclusive Design

Similar imbalances can be seen across many other SDGs, and can be improved in the first instance by empowering women as leaders in decision making processes, and ensure meaningful participation from women’s groups throughout planning, implementation and evaluation of programmes.

In cities, understanding gendered experiences will help us to practice inclusive design. For example, a study by Transport for London found 15% of women and girls have been subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport and an opinion poll found 64% of women have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places. Inclusive design principles help us acknowledge gendered experiences: place people at the heart of the design process; acknowledges diversity and difference; offer choice where a single design solution cannot accommodate all users; provide for flexibility in use; provide buildings and environments that are convenient and enjoyable to use for everyone.

Women and climate change

We know that the impact of climate change (Goal 13) such as flooding, droughts and hurricanes are not experienced evenly by men and women, with the more vulnerable individuals suffering the most. For example, women are unevenly represented in positions of power, they are less likely to have access to finance and knowledge, to own property and land, and they often have traditional caring roles which prevent them moving to find work.

These differences affect an individual’s ability to adapt to climate change, with men and boys also facing different forms of disadvantage. Using technology to give access to information, finance, employment, health and nutrition information, and building safe, inclusive and resilient communities is a vital way of ensuring that we leave no-one behind as we address the global grand challenges.

SDG 7: (Affordable and Clean Energy) presents an opportunity for engineers to help reduce inequalities, while empowering and enabling women to play their part in the fight against climate change. Indeed, engineers can and must provide clean energy access through gender-inclusive technologies, planning and policies. They must also, and promote women’s entrepreneurship for sustainable energy.

Guidelines for engineers

  • Use of Inclusive Design Frameworks and Equality Impact Assessments to ensure that designs are suitable for all
  • Develop a diverse and inclusive engineering sector which ensures the equal participation of women, and under-represented groups, and which attracts a diverse range of applicants
  • Invest in policies and programmes that work for women and girls
  • Engage women as leaders in decision making processes, and ensure meaningful participation from women’s groups throughout planning, implementation and evaluation of programmes
  • Use data and research to measure the impact of technologies on women and girls
  • Disaggregate data, and use the Inclusive Data Charter
  • Apply gender responsible budgeting
  • Consider the gender perspective in all areas of research
  • Understand the importance of key stakeholder buy-in on the uptake of technological solutions

Related links

Find out more on the gender perspective in engineering.

  • Dawn Bonfield, UK representative on the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) Women in Engineering Committee. at World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO)