The theme of International Women’s Day was “Be Bold for Change”. In that spirit, what bold decisions can Sydney make to ensure that it genuinely reflects and responds to the needs of women?

Women are re-shaping Australian cities. For the first time in history, a majority of graduates now entering the workforce are female and an increasing proportion of key decision-makers in business, politics and public service are women. Smart organisations know that gender balance improves performance and that increased productivity is linked to more women in the workforce. However, Sydney itself needs to catch up. Our transport, built environment and education system need an overhaul.

For example, as the NSW Government expands public transport in Sydney, we should grasp the opportunity to make it safer and more reliable. One option that could be trialled is safe carriages for women, fitted with CCTV, distress buttons and regularly patrolled after 8pm. Safe carriages already operate in cities such as Tokyo, Rio de Janiero and Leipzig. Combined with better lighting and more frequent services, this could substantially improve public transport for women. We should also explore the use of technology, such as creating a Sydney version of the Melbourne app, Free To Be, an online map that shows where women feel unsafe in the city.

We should also improve the accessibility of our city. Anyone who has navigated Sydney with a pram knows it is a battle. Faced with a steep flight of stairs outside a public building, many simply won’t bother. This is unacceptable in a democratic and inclusive city.

As the chair of the Greater Sydney Commission, Lucy Turnbull, has noted, “Sometimes you see extremely glamorous designer pavements that are completely impassable.” As we work towards a world where men and women shoulder equal responsibility for childcare and household income, we need to better design major public buildings and spaces with access in mind.

There are further tweaks we can make to our public institutions that are relatively cost free. Few office jobs, for example, start after 9am. This could be changed as the practical reality of dropping children at school makes it impossible to then get to an office job on time. This feeds the occupational gender divide and sees many men leave for work before 8am while their woman partners do the school drop-off. Earlier school opening start times could also be trialled to help rebalance the equation.

Sydney could take a lead from Vienna, which is regarded as one of the most female-friendly cities in the world. When the city’s authorities conducted a survey about its urban environment, policymakers were struck by the results. Men were limited in their response, while women had reams of suggestions on improving the city. This has given rise to apartment complexes designed for and by women, close to public transport, with lots of courtyards, and with pharmacy and childcare facilities right on site.

A female-friendly city is one where women’s perspectives are central to the design process, and where women can safely access services such as healthcare, public transport, social services and education with the same ease and opportunity as men.

Equality does not mean treating all groups the same way: policies and programs must often treat different people and groups differently. However, the goal and effect of a policy should be gender equality. If a city is female-friendly, it is friendly for everybody.

Gender equality and a female-friendly city feeds social justice. It also makes us wealthier. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute finds if women were to participate in the economy identically to men, they could add as much as $28 trillion or 26 per cent to annual global GDP by 2025. This is roughly the combined size of the economies of the United States and China today. Sydney can and must grab a slice of this economic dividend.

International Women’s Day is a reminder that we need to keep reforming ourselves, to ensure we harness the power of women to fully include them in the cities in which they live.

Ann Sherry is a member of the Committee for Sydney board.

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  1. Making a city more female friendly is part of the aim of Universal Design – designing with everyone in mind. Indeed, if you design for a pram, a trolley, wheeled luggage or a wheelie walker, you design for everyone – it is not exclusive. However the reverse is exclusionary. And I don’t just think about adding a ramp at the last minute – I mean place the building so it doesn’t need steps and therefor a ramp. Time for designers to think about ALL the people they will potentially serve, not just to impress their fellow designers or to demonstrate ‘art’. Form should follow function (for everyone).