In our discussion this week, we defined the difference between space and place thus: space is the physical location, abstract and without meaning; a place is a space that has meaning, which has been coloured by human experiences.
In groups and as a class, we identified a few places that women avoid or feel uncomfortable in, like gyms or city streets at night or skate parks. Often just the presence of large groups of men was enough to make women feel vulnerable or nervous. Women In Cities International (WICI) asked, “What Makes Women Feel Safe in Public Space?” Among the answers they received, responses indicated that places felt safe when they:
- were well-lit and clean
- had street art, greenery, and seating
- had clearly marked directions/exits
Women felt comforted by spaces where there were other people families and felt that good lighting and clear exits also minimized the fear of threats or attacks. One thing many of the answers also pointed out was accessibility; cities felt safest when they were “socially connected, inclusive and accessible.”
The design of spaces can sometimes serve to separate people in a gendered way. One example from earlier in the semester is how the office in Mad Men is set up: the men’s large offices encircle the women’s small, individual desks. The men claim more of the space, and have their own private offices, while the women are grouped together in space where they can be observed.
A study by Paula Townsend in Britain looked at the contemporary home. As we’ve noted previously, women are typically associated with the private and domestic while men occupy the working world and public sphere. One thing the study mentions is how homes construct “personal space”:
Male partners frequently have space that can be regarded as their own personal territory in the form of the garden, a garage, a den, or in better equipped and often larger dwellings, a study; a space where they have the freedom to do as they choose. Women, as housewives, rarely have defined personal space. The female partner may have personal space in her part of the bedroom, yet total privacy is denied due to the bedroom being a shared space between adult partners.
This stood out to me when I considered my own home. The garage, the downstairs workshop, and the media room basically belong to my dad. They’re also secluded and rarely used for socializing. (The media room was originally more of a family space, but has become less so as we consume more media on our individual laptops and tablets.) We have a spare room that my mom uses for sewing and crafting, but it also doubles as our guest room, and has to be regularly given up to visiting family.
My sister and I grew up with separate bedrooms. Having my personal space, with door that shut, has always felt important to me. My sister and I have also each expressed a desire to one day have a home with a study or studio where we could work. In popular culture, marriage and family are presented as the ultimate goals for women. They are expected to share their life, and so it follows, their space. However, if women take the role of artist, entrepreneur, or craftsperson, roles that are not defined by their obligations to their partner and children, they may claim more personal space.
One thing we didn’t really discuss is how this concept of space/place plays out in the digital world. The design of digital spaces, like physical spaces, can create environments which are more or less welcoming to people of different genders. For example, women and non-binary people are more likely to experience harassment online (and offline). Digital spaces which fail to protect users’ privacy, do not have or enforce community guidelines which ban harassment or other abuse, and do not provide users the ability to block or report abusive users or posts create a hostile environment for vulnerable people. (See the Tech Ladies statement on the Gender Digital Divide.) This can lead to situations that put these users’ safety at risk, like the Gamergate harassment campaign.
I think it is important that current and future discussions of gender and space/place acknowledge that an increasing amount of our time is spent in non-physical places which can still be be gendered.