[Image featured is of a woman pushing a baby stroller walking crossing a snowy residential street Source]
Grace is a second year medical student at King’s with a passion for medical humanities, closing the gender data gap, and perfecting the chocolate chip cookie. When not out walking she can usually be found in front of a sewing machine, behind a computer, or inside a book.
When a city in central Sweden underwent a review of its policies to ensure gender equality, one staff member joked that at least there couldn’t be any gender inequality in snow clearing. This was far from the truth, however, and instead prompted the realisation that the way the city cleared snow off the roads in winter was in fact disadvantaging, and even injuring, women significantly more than their male counterparts.
Since 1985, Northern Sweden has been collecting and collating data on hospital admissions for injuries. In winter, understandably, many of these are injuries resulting from slips, trips, and falls: in the city of Umeå, a study found that 79% of pedestrian injuries occurred during the winter months, with two thirds of injured pedestrians falling after slipping on frozen, icy, or snow-covered surfaces. 3 times as many pedestrians as motorists were injured in icy conditions in single person accidents (involving just one person, for example a slip, skid, or fall), and, notably, women accounted for nearly 70% of injured pedestrians.
Sweden’s main strategy for achieving its gender equality policy objectives is Gender Mainstreaming, a public policy concept wherein any planned policy action (including legislation and programmes) is, at all different levels, assessed for differing implications for people of different genders. Gender mainstreaming takes place at many levels of policy making in Sweden, including national, government agencies, county administrative governments, county councils, and municipalities, with the aim of making sure that gender equality is included in political policy. It was during a gender mainstreaming review in 2011 that the city of Karlskoga in central Sweden realised that women were being most affected by icy and snowy road and pavement surfaces, looked into possible reasons for this, and discovered how something as simple as snow clearing can impact so disproportionately on women, and how easily this can be reversed
When city staff in Karlskoga looked at use of different types of roads and paths compared to which roads and paths were cleared and in what order and, most importantly, sex-disaggregated the data they collected, they discovered that men drive cars more often than women, who in turn walk, cycle, and use public transport more than men. Snow clearing on city property, as in most cities and towns at the time, prioritised major traffic arteries and roads used by cars and other large vehicles. On the other hand, pavements, pedestrian walkways, and bike paths were cleared last, and therefore left snowy, frozen, and treacherous for longer.
While we do not have good quality (or indeed much at all) sex-disaggregated data from every country, what data we do have indicates that populations everywhere are likely conform to these trends. For example, two thirds of French public transport users are women, along with more than 60% of public transport users in American cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia. Similarly, in households that own a car, access to it is consistently dominated by men. Women also tend to travel at different times and for different reasons compared to men, and they are much more likely to travel encumbered or accompanied by buggies, small children, and/or loads such as groceries. By prioritising roads intended for car use, the city’s snow clearing policy prioritised accessibility for the mode of transport most commonly used by men, despite the fact that car travel is significantly faster than any other mode of transport – it’s easier to drive a car through 3 inches of snow than it is to plough a bike, wheelchair, or buggy through the same obstruction. The fact that women were more often walking or cycling on paths left slippery and dangerous for longer also accounted for the much higher rates of injuries compared to men.
It is important to note that this discrepancy was not deliberate. The planning department was not consciously disadvantaging women’s routes, destinations, or preferred modes of transport, rather, they simply hadn’t considered the fact that men and women travelled differently. The council were, as far as they knew, meeting the needs of the city as they knew them to be, likely based on their personal experience. However, what they had not considered was that not everyone has the same needs, and nor did the needs of those on the council accurately represent those of the entire city. This is just one of many reasons how a lack of good quality, sex-disaggregated data hurts everyone, but especially those who do not conform to the able-bodied male ‘norm’.
It wasn’t even a cost-based decision. It wasn’t cheaper to accommodate men better than women, nor would it have been more expensive or time consuming to prioritise cycle paths and pavements. Since the same amount of snow clearing would eventually happen, regardless of the order in which it occurred, the cost remained the same, no matter of how or when it was done.
This, then, was the city council’s solution to the problem: in 2011, they decided to change how they cleared snow, in order to prioritise pedestrians. Now, areas around preschools have the highest priority for snow clearing, and they are cleared before six am because parents are very likely to drop children off before going to work. Major employers, regardless of the make-up of their workforce, are prioritised next, followed by pedestrian walkways and bike paths to schools, all of which are cleared before pupils and students leave their homes. Changing these priorities ultimately made the city more accessible for everyone, but especially women, teenagers (who desire freedom of mobility but are not yet legally allowed to drive), and wheelchair users (who also benefited from cleared pathways).
As well as making the cities and towns safer and more accessible for everyone, this move also, in the long run, saves money in healthcare costs and lost productivity. A study in the county of Skåne, in southern Sweden (familiar to those of you who may have watched Sveriges Television and Danmarks Radio’s Nordic Noir TV series The Bridge as being the Swedish side of the Øresund Bridge which connects southern Sweden to northern Denmark) found that the cost of pedestrian falls during just one winter season was at least 36 million Swedish Kroner (around £3.2million). Changing the snow clearing patterns in Karlskoga (where, before, the costs of healthcare and of lost productivity amounted to a staggering four times as much as the cost of the city’s snow clearance service) meant that these costs decreased, simply because fewer people were falling over on slick, icy pavements, cycle paths, and pedestrian walkways.
Although apparently innocuous, a simple change in snow clearing after road usage data was sex-disaggregated is capable of massive reductions in both money and injuries, demonstrating clearly how gender mainstreaming can improve conditions and daily life for almost everyone. And this is not the only example: what few examples of sex disaggregated data and its use in gender mainstreaming that are available show that something as simple as taking into account how individual groups within populations move and act and behave can have similarly huge effects on not only cost but safety, productivity, and happiness.
Invisible Women (2019, Penguin Random House) by Caroline Criado Perez