Public space

Women experience and navigate public space very differently to men. This is due to pre-existing gender inequalities that dictate patterns of movement, the use of different public services and buildings, participation in public and domestic spheres, the gender pay gap, the dynamics of paid and unpaid work and women’s lack of safety and security.

Planning, public realm and transport policy are key entry points into the management of public space and shape land-use in Scotland’s cities, towns and rural areas. However, transport and built environment sectors are dominated by men and have historically been built around the needs of a (male) breadwinner who is travelling from home to work and leisure. This means that design of urban space and infrastructure is both a cause and consequence of women’s exclusion from public life.

Over the last 30 years, the internet has become a public space in which women routinely experience harassment and misogynistic abuse. Women are increasingly required to operate within online spaces to access public services, carry out paid employment and maintain social links. Within a context of limited scope for regulation and intervention, internet access and online safety is a growing concern for women and girls in Scotland.


By 2030 planning at national, local and community level is inclusive of the needs and realities of women.

Scottish Government, local authorities and educational institutions should:

Gender policy

Support women in the built environment

The needs of women are currently marginalised in planning of the built environment and development of the public realm. Employment opportunities, especially those that are well-paid, tend to be distant from residential areas as well as the services and amenities that women need for caring and household management roles. This limits women’s access to the labour market and contributes to time poverty for those juggling paid and unpaid work. Planning which does not consider women's needs can lead to insufficient lighting, a key safety issue for women, and inaccessible streets and public buildings. The number of public toilets is diminishing, which prevents disabled women, carers and mothers of young children from accessing public spaces.

Delivery of land-use projects, including office, retail and housing developments, health and childcare facilities, parks and entertainment venues, must systematically take these gendered realities into account, and recognise the impact of location, cost and facilities on women’s social, cultural and economic equality. In Scotland, women are often at the heart of community or regeneration initiatives to improve their built environments, but gender equality concerns are primarily absent from statutory planning. Current national strategies and the recent independent review of Scotland’s planning system are gender-blind, and there remains a gender gap in women employed in the built environment sector.

In 2016, the UK signed the United Nations ‘New Urban Agenda’, which commits to developing cities that are designed to achieve gender equality. Reforms to Scotland’s National Planning Framework (due before parliament by 2019) must therefore work to deliver this, with gender equality embedded in resulting legislation, regulations and guidance. Proposals such as ‘community right to plan’ can successfully be used to bring planning decisions to the heart of communities and must incorporate plans to enable women’s equal participation from the outset.


By 2030 Scotland’s public transport systems are redesigned to recognise and support the transport needs of women.

Scottish Government, Transport Scotland and transport operators should:

Gender public transport policy

Increase accountability of transport providers to women

The use of Scotland’s transport systems is highly gendered. Women are the majority of public transport users, and the minority of drivers and cyclists. Women also tend to make more complex and frequent journeys due to caring responsibilities and working patterns. Scotland’s public transport systems, however, do not reflect the different needs of women. Management of Scotland’s transport sector is overwhelmingly dominated by men, with only one of Scotland’s sixteen transport authorities, public companies and regional transport partnerships led by a woman. This may contribute to the disparity between the transport needs of women, and Scotland’s transport priorities.

Public transport has been predominantly designed to serve commuters who work from 9-5pm on weekdays, with routes running between suburbs and urban centres in a radial fashion. These services benefit men more than women, who are more likely to need a range of orbital transport routes which cross towns and cities and timetables which fit with unpaid care work, part-time employment and shift work. This has significant cost and time implications, especially in the context of cuts to women’s social security and increasingly precarious work, and steep hikes in fares across privatised services. Lack of accessibility on public transport is another gender equality issue, affecting the mobility and isolation of women who care for young children and disabled people. Fears about safety also influence women’s decisions around travel. Women cite public transport as a ‘hotspot’ for gendered abuse and sexual harassment, and raise concerns about poorly-staffed services and termini, as well as services that are poorly connected, especially at night.

These issues should be addressed in the recommended “fuller, collaborative” review of Scotland’s National Transport Strategy, through robust gender mainstreaming, outreach to different groups of women stakeholders and gender budget analysis of investment in road-use, public transport and active travel. Regulation and procurement for public transport franchises should subsequently work to increase routes and services between and within local areas, address safety issues, improve service standards and tackle rising costs.


By 2030 women in Scotland can access and participate in all areas of online space without harassment.

The Scottish Government should:

Ensure access

Challenge misogyny

The internet is a public space where women are expected to engage in order to fully participate in public life. Internet is required to access information, apply for jobs and social security, enhance education and maintain contact with friends, family and professional acquaintances.

While access to the internet in Scotland has increased significantly over the past decade, the Scottish Household Survey findings show that 20 percent of Scottish households are still without internet access, with around one in five adults reportedly not using the internet at all. Limited internet access and use are strongly linked to indicators of deprivation in Scotland and those with access to internet are more likely to have access to a car, to have undertaken volunteering, to have accessed council services, and to have partaken in cultural, social and sporting activities. Access to public internet is also not guaranteed, with the numbers of public libraries in Scotland declining by 2.75 percent from 2010-2015, and further reductions in opening hours. There is limited gender-disaggregated data for barriers to internet access in Scotland, but clear correlation between low online participation and other areas of deprivation which are highly gendered.

For women and girls in Scotland, access is not the only barrier to participation in online spaces. Misogyny, abuse and threats are rife for women online, including direct contact on social networking sites and online forums, and indirectly through sharing of images and information without consent. Work done by Engender has shown that there is little employer support for women who receive harassment online while undertaking required activities for their work. While there is rightly concern about the harassment of women with higher public profiles including politicians, athletes and women in the arts, the reality is that all women and girls are regularly exposed to violent and highly sexualised online abuse.

While the Scottish Government’s digital strategy makes commitments to tackling the gender gap in digital skills and careers, it does not mention gender in any other contexts, nor does it reference the safety issues facing women online. Any action from Scottish Government must be integrated with Equally Safe, Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls.

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Gender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in ScotlandGender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in Scotland

Key terms


The ‘breadwinner’ refers to a member of the household whose wage provides the main household income. The ‘breadwinner model’ refers to a family where one person, normally a man, is in paid employment and provides for others in the family engaged in unpaid care.


‘Community right to plan’ is a principle which says the community should have a say in planning in their area, including a specific right to develop local place plans, complemented by statutory rights to contribute to the production of local development plans and the scrutiny of planning applications.


Gender-blind projects, programmes, policies and attitudes do not take into account the different social, cultural, economic and political roles and needs or women/girls and men/boys. They therefore maintain the status quo and will not help transform the unequal structure of gender relations.


Gender-disaggregated data is numerical or non-numerical information which has been broken down by gender.


A gender sensitive policy or programme is one which recognises the diverse needs and experiences of women/girls and men/boys, and considers its impact on gender equality at every stage.


The labour market refers to the space in which employers look and compete for labour, and in which workers look and compete for employment.


Statutory planning is the part of the town planning process that is concerned with the regulation and management of changes to land use and development.


Time poverty refers to having little or no time outside of paid work or caring responsibilities.


The Public Sector Equality Duty requires public authorities to take a proactive and organised approach to tackling institutional discrimination, and aims to mainstream equality into public bodies.

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