We need (feminist) cities

Laetitia@Work #25

Hi everyone,

I hope you’ve enjoyed your summer (with or without a break). It seems now that 2020 will continue to be a year of unabated uncertainty. Nobody knows how bad the pandemic will rebound, how terrible the economic crisis will continue to be as a result, how many people will find themselves without a home, and what the political future will look like in just a few months (with upcoming elections in the US whose outcome no ‘expert’ dares to predict). In that context of prolonged uncertainty, it’s a miracle people continue to make plans about their future. But what else can we do?

Where we’ll live and work (if we’ll even have work, in what conditions) seems particularly uncertain. The pandemic has revealed deep fault lines between workers: those who can work from home and those who who have to work on the ‘frontlines’, those whose revenues are safe and those who now risk eviction. Even among WFH workers there are fault lines. Your ability to work from home depends on whether or not you must care for someone else. All this has spurred endless discussions about the future of work. One of the questions asked most often concerns the future geography of jobs.

high-rise buildings

For half a year there have been numerous discussions about the future of cities and jobs. The Covid crisis is said to have caused many (rich) urbanites to flee to the countryside to work from home, while density and promiscuity caused many ‘frontline’ workers (often immigrants and minority groups) to get sick. Everything that makes a city attractive—its restaurants, theatres, social vibrancy… and people density—is now censured by the pandemic. Thus cities have become both more dangerous and less attractive. Their fiscal future is in jeopardy for years to come. Some of the largest cities, where real estate had become exceedingly expensive, may now become more affordable (San Francisco’s a case in point). 

But whatever happens large cities have proved very resilient throughout history. And it’s hard to imagine the future of work without them. This week I’d like to focus specifically on the relationship between the city and female work 🌆

Women and the city

I was very inspired by Leslie Kern’s book Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World (2020), which offers interesting thoughts on what a “feminist city” could look like. A professor of geography in Canada, Leslie Kern is “proud to call [herself] a feminist geographer”. A few decades ago, people may have mocked the idea that geography could be sexist or feminist. Today most people can understand that urban planning has consequences on gender equality. And that any academic discipline is shaped by those who make it. If the world is viewed only though (white) male eyes, it’s less likely to be feminist.

This simple statement of the fact that built environments reflect the societies that construct them might seem obvious. In a world where everything from medication to crash test dummies, bullet-proof vests to kitchen counters, smartphones to office temperatures, are designed, tested, and set to standards determined by men’s bodies and needs, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. (...) The continued underrepresentation of women in architectural and planning professions means that women’s experiences of and in these places are likely to be overlooked or based on outdated stereotypes.

Cities were largely built by men and for men. Public transit systems are not welcoming to mothers with strollers (which is also true in London and Paris where I lived) or people with disabilities. City infrastructures were designed by default for an average, able-bodied man. A lot of the freedoms and pleasures enjoyed by men are less available to women. For example, strolling freely across the city as a “flâneur”: “Could the flâneur be female? (...) women can never fully escape into invisibility because their gender marks them as objects of the male gaze.” 

Any woman knows that the experience of walking across the city comes with the possibility of street harassment, for example. Often women can’t inhabit public spaces the way men do. They’ve been taught from a young age to avoid some places, in particular during the night. “We figure out which places to avoid, rather than which people”. Even though women are more likely to face violence in the home than in the street, fear of (some) public spaces have been ingrained into them.

And yet the city is also a place of liberation and opportunity for women. It’s where you find work, friends, solidarity, communities of like-minded people. There’s enough people density to mutualise some of the services you need (like childcare). There’s enough anonymity and diversity to make you feel more free to live your life the way you like. City life comes with freedom, especially when you compare it to suburban life. It comes with better prospects to work outside the home and juggle multiple roles.

Compared to the suburbs, this kind of urban density offered a lot more ways to manage parenting, grad school, and domestic responsibilities. (...) Betty Friedan’s 1963 diagnosis of the “problem that has no name” included a scathing indictment of suburban life (...) The suburban lifestyle both assumed and required, in order to function properly, a heterosexual nuclear family with one adult working outside the home and one inside.

A feminist city for all female workers is centred around care

The privileged few female office workers and the less-privileged ‘frontline’ female workers who do care work, for example, have hugely different lives and needs. It would be ludicrous to speak of “female workers” as if they were one homogeneous group. That’s why many of today’s feminists insist different points of view need to be taken into account as different aspects of a person’s social identity (gender, class, ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation…) will “intersect”: a black woman for example might face forms of discrimination where race and gender play a role. (Hence the concept of “intersectionality”.)

As far as female work is concerned, “intersectionality” offers an interesting framework of analysis. There are privileged women pursuing historically ‘male’ careers and poorer, often minority, women who do all the ‘reproductive’ work that used to be done by the first group too. But their lives remain intertwined. As I wrote in a previous newsletter about the “she-cession”:

Domestic chores weren’t really shared more evenly in the household (only marginally) as more women got a paid job, these chores were merely outsourced to other women outside the household. Domestic chores entered the realm of paid work, which is not a bad thing, of course, because something that was done for free suddenly generated at least some payment. It’s also made it possible for women to make a living and become more economically independent.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either because child care, elderly care, and cleaning remained largely the work of women. In other words the sexual division of labour was never really challenged. There is this systemic interdependence of women on other women for their careers and earnings which perpetuates the sexual division of labour. If one category of women doesn’t do well, then it has a negative impact on the other category.

During the pandemic the sexual division of labour and the interdependence of female knowledge workers and domestic and care workers was made eerily obvious. The tasks that had been outsourced (child care, cleaning, cooking) all had to be re-internalised… and most of these tasks had to be performed by the woman (women) in the household. In most cases it is often “rational” to preserve the time and space of the main earner in the household (often not a woman): they can’t jeopardise their career to do more housework. But strangely enough, even in households where the main earner is a woman, she still bears the brunt of the re-internalised housework. On average, high-earning women in WFH situations spend more time on child care and domestic chores than men who are out of a job!

What does all this have to do with the “feminist city”, you may ask? Well, everything! Female office workers rely “on a wide network of social services frequently found in central city areas” and career opportunities that require dense city networks. Some of them need a city’s “third spaces” with opportunities to work outside the home. But female care workers also rely on the city’s density for work and opportunity! The quality of their lives will depend on that city’s housing options and the quality of public transit. Enabling care work (both paid and unpaid) is a key ingredient of what constitutes a “feminist city”. Public transportation, childcare services, affordable housing, mixed-use neighbourhoods are all essential elements.

Ideally, all of these diverse kinship networks could open up possibilities for sharing the work of social reproduction, care-giving, and child raising in creative, even feminist ways. For that to happen, however, our neighbourhoods and cities have to support it.

“Enabling care” doesn’t only mean that cities ought to offer better childcare and elderly care for all (although as a European, I tend to find that’s indispensable!), it also means supporting alternative forms of housing where it’s possible to “collectivise” care work. It takes a village to raise a child or care for the elderly. “Housework and childcare must be socialised and incorporated into new spatial arrangements to facilitate women’s entry into the workforce, equality with men, and intellectual development.” 

This means we can’t let urban planning be designed by default for the nuclear family. First, the nuclear family default is not great for feminism. Second, the traditional nuclear family is no longer the norm: there are so many single-parent families, single people, same-sex couples, and all sorts of alternative family arrangements that the traditional 1950s nuclear family is now in the minority. A “feminist city” is an inclusive city that makes life easier for more people.

Last but not least, many women’s time is so limited that they have a lot to gain from higher density. They find it hard to juggle the constraints of paid and unpaid work. So the shorter the distance between constraint #1 and constraint #2, the better. The denser their solidarity network (friends or family), the better. That’s why city density will long remain a plus. There have been interesting discussions in Paris about the “15-minute city” which is a great illustration of this idea. 

The “15-minute” idea is based on research into how city dwellers’ use of time could be reorganised to improve both living conditions and the environment. Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris, the concept of “la ville du quart d’heure” is one in which daily urban necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike. Work, home, shops, entertainment, education and healthcare — in Moreno’s vision, these should all be available within the same time a commuter might once have waited on a railway platform.

This essay is long enough, but if you’re hungry for more, have a look at these other newsletters I wrote on related topics:

👉 2020: a She-cession?

👉 Is remote work good for women?

👉 Future of work: the 5 opportunities and threats of today’s crisis

👉 The many benefits of parental laziness 

🌳 Still in Normandy until November when the plan is to move to Munich, Germany. For the next two months our brave son Ferdinand will go to school in the nearby village. It’s his first time in a French school! Although he speaks French very well, he’s never learned to write it. So the “CM1” (the equivalent of Year 4 in the UK) will be a challenge!

For Nouveau départ (in French), Nicolas and I recorded lots of new podcasts. We revamped our media, launched lots of new formats (articles and podcasts). Yesterday we published an interview with French feminist Rebecca Amsellem. And the day before, it was a conversation about the future of cities and the geography of work.

For Welcome to the Jungle, I’ve continued the “We’re all biased” series and published an article about the gender gap in France’s competitive exams: Oraux d’école : Comment expliquer les biais de genre ?

Last but not least, Nicolas and I are launching a new podcast in English. It’s called “Building Bridges”, and we’ll interview people we admire 🎙️ Stay tuned!


  • ⚙️ Frances Frei: It’s OK that companies aren’t talking about Black Lives Matter—as long as they’re making progress in private, Emma Hinchliffe, Fortune, August 2020: “Being inclusive of diversity is the missing ingredient. We might have people that are underrepresented and if we are thoroughly inclusive of those folks—if they thrive just as much as everyone else—then we’ll begin to make a lot of progress. The mistake we’ve been making is we think about diversity first and inclusion second, and I would flip that. If we learn how to be inclusive of people, then we will be a magnificent place for diverse perspectives.”

  • 👗 How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion, Emily Mullin, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2016: “The Victorians romanticized the disease and the effects it caused in the gradual build to death. For decades, many beauty standards emulated or highlighted these effects. And as scientists gained greater understanding of the disease and how it was spread, the disease continued to keep its hold on fashion.”

  • 🇨🇳 For Refusing a Drink With the Boss, He Was Slapped in the Face, Tiffany May, New York Times, August 2020: “Around the globe, alcohol has long been seen as a way for workers to bond, as a catalyst for business deals and as a vital lubricant for professional connections. In South Korea, a younger generation of professionals has pushed back against late-night project discussions in bars, and the government has led a campaign against overtime culture. Since the 1990s, alcohol consumption has increased by 70 percent in China, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2019.”

I wish you all the best for what we French people call the “Rentrée”, i.e. the beginning of the school year and the end of our August holidays 💌