An action group impatient for gender equality in the built environment, Part W Collective believes that places and spaces should be designed and delivered in a manner that is open, supportive, and beneficial to all. Their work pushes for intersectional thinking and develops a series of actions intended to support women and girls from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, generations, and experiences. In the first instalment of their column, Zoë Berman, founder of Part W Collective, shares her thoughts on the genesis of the project, the discoveries that fueled its interests and why it is imperative to call out gender discrimination in the often exclusionary industry of design.
Alternative List crowd sourced black and white grid.
Start by starting: spatial austerity and collective action.
2016 was a year of political earthquakes. The UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU was directly followed by a huge spike in hate crimes.1 A tape of Donald Trump, in which he boasted about grabbing women “by the pussy”, emerged a few weeks later. And then, on November 8, that same man, widely described as a grandiose narcissist and a dangerous demagogue, became the 45th president of the USA.2 It was hard to be cheerful.
The following year felt no better. In 2017, Freedom House reported that political rights and civil liberties deteriorated around the world to their lowest point in more than a decade,3 noting that the year was characterised by emboldened autocrats and beleaguered democracies.
In 2017, Freedom House reported that political rights and civil liberties deteriorated around the world to their lowest point in more than a decade.
I was living in London at the time, a city where staggering wealth sits alongside grinding poverty and those desperately struggling under it. The political situation made me feel depressed. Using design as a tool for social justice has always been at the centre of my own interests, but I was unsure how to make a meaningful contribution in a sea of such overwhelming global upheaval.
An energising moment came when I joined over 100,000 others at the Women’s March. As Leslie Kern puts it in her book Feminist City – Claiming Space in a Man-made World: “cities have been primary spaces for activism… participating in protests brought my sense of belonging in the city alive and confirmed my righteous sense of indignation that affected not just my life, but the lives of millions of others.”4
Listening to the speeches made in Trafalgar Square, I felt uplifted by the sense of sisterhood and collective action.
Pioneering Modernist Women, RIBA x Part W event 2020.
Listening to the speeches made in Trafalgar Square, I felt uplifted by the sense of sisterhood and collective action. Buoyed by the feeling of shared voice and co-activism, the day after the march I paid my subs to join the Women’s Equality Party.
After attending my first branch meeting, I quickly comprehended the gender bias implicit in government austerity: the closure of libraries and of family and health centres continues to have a greater impact on women, in particular those part of already disadvantaged minority groups.5 I learned that, on average, women in England need twelve times their annual salary to be able to buy a home, while men need just over eight times. Furthermore, whilst the majority of people recorded as sleeping rough are male, the majority of those who are homeless—i.e. have no fixed address—are female: sofa-surfing women fleeing domestic violence and moving from place to place, often with children.
Women in England need twelve times their annual salary to be able to buy a home, while men need just over eight times.
Hearing these and many other facts about housing and social infrastructure revealed to me the spatial impact of austerity, an emblem of an institutional value system that consistently denigrates female-centred services. Being an architect, the underfunding and closure of buildings that host and hold social support centres resonated in a more personal way.
How could I find agency, and make a contribution?
Instigating cross-pollination of ideas in order to produce solutions has always brought me joy. In 2017, I started to moot the loose idea of holding some form of professional discussion group where female design experts could unpack issues of gender inequality and place making, and interrogate the barriers faced everyday by women in design.
The outline idea of Part W was developing, before it yet had a name.
Women’s Work: London Map —the latest project of Part W Collective— will be launched on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2023. If you happen to be in London on that date, come join us at The Department Store in Brixton, starting from 6pm. Buy a ticket here and come hear us discuss the project with other experts.Make sure to get your hands on the first ever Women’s Work: London Map, which can be purchased here. And remember: throughout March—Women’s History Month—raise a glass and honour women of past and present. And remember: throughout March—Women’s History Month—raise a glass and honour women of past and present.
Read the whole "Part W at Work" column by part W Collective.
Part W is an action group that campaigns to raise the profile of women in the built environment by celebrating and drawing attention to women’s projects and skills. It seeks to bring about change in how women’s work in placemaking, design and architecture is valued and recognised—and challenges policies that cause gender discrimination in built environments. The organisation is run by a core steering group of ten women who work across the sectors of architectural design, sustainable transport, planning, design education and journalism.
1 Brexit and Hate crime: why was the rise more pronounced in areas that voted Remain? By Facundo Albornoz, Jake Bradley and Silvia Sonderegger. Published online by LSE British Politics, 12 January 2021 [online]
2 So Long 2016: the year of the political earthquake by Decca Aitkenhead. Published online by The Guardian 24 December 2016. [online]
3 Freedom in the World 2018: Democracy in Crisis. By Michael J. Abramowitz. Published online by Freedom House. Date of publication unknown. [online]
4 Sági, Mirjam. 2022. “Kern, L.: Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World.” Hungarian Geographical Bulletin 71 (3): 301–4. [online]
5 See [online]