Can design influence gender parity? The dean of Fleming College thinks so

Within two years of the college unveiling its state-of-the-art Kawartha Trades and Technology Centre, enrolment of women ballooned from 2 per cent to upwards of 10 per cent.

Should you hire a plumber, electrician or carpenter this year, there is only a 4 per cent chance that the tradesperson coming to your door will be a woman. Similarly, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations are largely male-dominated – even in Canada, even in the 21st century. If the Joe the Plumber stereotype is ever going to be toppled, shifting our cultural conception of these jobs, more women need to enter these professions 

This is not news to post-secondary institutions specializing in trades and STEM education. In the past decade, colleges and universities have designed initiatives that explicitly seek to rectify the glaring gender imbalance in these programs. And in 2014, Fleming College in Peterborough stumbled upon a new tool in the equity toolbox: design itself.

That fall, the college unveiled its state-of-the-art Kawartha Trades and Technology Centre, by architecture firm Perkins + Will, and in only two years enrolment of women ballooned from 2 per cent to upwards of 10 per cent. Although it’s tricky to prove empirically that the building caused the influx of women, dean Maxine Mann has no doubts about the role of the centre. 

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Tom Arban

The interior of the new Kawartha Trades + Technology Centre at Fleming College

“Our old basement facility was dirty, with no natural light. This building sets a different tone,” Mann says. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of young and mature women coming to trades, not only because of employment opportunities, but because the school has been designed to feel like a safe space.”

The shift in gender balance was not an intended outcome of the building design, but the various elements that create a welcoming environment are wholly deliberate. The centre has ample natural light and good visibility, and workshop space is accessible and out in the open on the main floor. At the core of the building, a four-storey simulated construction site allows for collaboration across trades. 

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Amanda Large & Younes Bounhar (doublespace photography)

The Bergeron Centre at York University

Architect Safdar Abidi, Higher Education Practice Leader, at Perkins + Will, says that all these features contribute to learning environments that are innately more inclusive. 

“There are different layers of design that can potentially make under-represented groups feel more accommodated or welcome,” he says. 

“At the fundamental level, environments with abundant natural light, beautiful materials and comfortable proportions inspire people to engage. At another level, we want to celebrate what happens in those spaces and increasingly put the work of researchers and students on display instead of hiding it.”

This thinking signals a fundamental change in design priorities from the last wave of post-secondary campus design: 60s brutalist architecture, with its concrete lecture halls and tiny windows. Instead, learning environments are now open, flexible and multi-purpose. In many cases, new learning facilities allow for collaboration and student-led space use, which promotes inclusivity and equity.

Yet Abidi is also careful to differentiate between design that works toward the specific goal of gender equity and good design that incidentally lends itself to achieving that goal. Additional considerations that address gender equity are not yet fully incorporated into design for post-secondary education. These include close attention to signage and imagery that may offend or exclude, and safety-related design elements that keep vulnerable persons from being isolated or otherwise made more vulnerable.

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Amanda Large & Younes Bounhar (doublespace photography)

York University’s Bergeron Centre

“Fleming is getting a lot of attention because of the gender-based out-come, but it’s only now that buildings we’re designing have other gender-conscious features like gender-neutral washrooms,” Abidi says. “The Fleming building is the first building that models a gender-based change in culture and behaviour because of its design.” 

Other schools are hoping to mimic that result. York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering boasts the freshly minted Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence, which follows many of the same innovative design principles as the Kawartha Centre and also features flexible, technology-filled spaces. 

Assistant dean Marisa Sterling proudly recounts how a recent all-woman hackathon (the first of its kind in Canada) saw a turnout of more than 200 students. 

Sterling also relays that the struggle for gender equity in her discipline is a long-standing one. 

“When I was in engineering at U of T, the building only had men’s washrooms, and when they realized they needed to have women’s washrooms, they switched a washroom every other floor,” she recalls. “So as a student you just had to remember, ‘If I want to go to the washroom, it’s on floors 1 and 3, not 2 and 4.’”

There’s now a women’s washroom on every floor. | @nowtoronto

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