She and Him

By Sean Hua


Image source: This Girl Can
You may have recently read about or attended a talk by Keith Brown from our UK office. Keith was extremely passionate about the urban design and masterplanning interventions that would promote greater levels of physical activity in largely sedentary modern societies. These could take place in the form of shared paths rather than car-centric ones, or perhaps through an increased provision in sporting facilities.

What struck a chord with me – for a variety of reasons – was the UK campaign called “This Girl Can”, aimed at encouraging women to be more physically active. Specifically, it aimed to neutralize the perception that organized sport and physical activity were “masculine” pursuits, and that women should find them just as acceptable in their daily life. As a marketing campaign this was wildly successful, with the initial ad racking up around 16 million views, and some 150,000 new female participants across a variety of sports. The Australian equivalent called Girls Make Your Move was launched very recently by the Department of Health, and it is still too soon to tell whether this campaign will have the same kind of impact that its UK counterpart did.

Image source: girls make your move
Image source: Girls Make Your Move
While I may not entirely agree with the marketing approach of both campaigns, I do believe it is an important goal to reassess our self-imposed, gender-based restrictions as to what we are capable of. Sport – any sport – shouldn’t be regarded as a masculine thing to do, or a feminine thing to avoid; and the campaigns’ attempts to highlight this are admirable.

However, organized sport is one thing, and everyday life is something else.

What I was curious about is the influence that planning and design can have on the gender neutralizing of everyday physical activity, outside of organized sport. For example, a few years ago I wrote a thesis on gender inequality in the Melbourne commuter cycling demographic. A large part of the existing literature I researched touched on how women tended to be discouraged from commuting by bike, as the prevalent infrastructure of on-road paths and sharing the road with cars, felt more confronting and less safe to them than it did for men. Specifically, women tended to much prefer bike paths that were physically separated from cars.

This raises a potentially thorny issue: is it enough just to promote general physical activity, without improving the infrastructure for women? I’m of the opinion that no, it is not enough, and that we would all be better served if physical infrastructure catered to the safety and well being of everyone. I also understand that some might think it patronizing to suggest women might need different facilities to be more physically active. Inclusivity and empowerment can be difficult to negotiate.

With this in mind, perhaps it is not enough just to say “Get active”, nor is it enough to say “Build it and they will come.” The reality would be somewhere in between wouldn’t it?

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