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Why visibility matters in women’s careers

08 March 2018 Author: Roisin Willmott

At a recent Six Nations match at the home of Welsh rugby I was amused by a group of men (from the competing side) in front who seemed to be somewhat entertained and confused by something. I asked them if they were ok, as the focus seemed to be on me and the woman next to me. Smiling, they responded: “It’s our very first rugby match and there are women everywhere – we’re not used to this!” They enjoyed their afternoon, despite the score line.

In the professional world, women are also everywhere. But are we as visible as we could and should be? In planning we do better than some other careers but perhaps we could do better in visibility.

In 2016, I was awarded my RTPI Fellowship certificate by Trudi Elliott. I was shocked when she announced that I was one of only nine woman Fellows of the Institute. Normally I would feel good about being in the top 10, but this was not a good indicator.

In the professional world, we need to make ourselves visible and that is down to us, with support from managers and mentors.

It was not because I was only one of nine women to deserve being a Fellow but more likely because I was the ninth to have asked; and it also took a woman to encourage me to ask. Startlingly, only 3.8% of Fellowship applications have been made by women in the history of the RTPI. Study after study reveals that women struggle in “self-promotion, advocating for themselves, and expressing their talents”.

I’m pleased to say that there have been a few more women elected since 2016 and we are now in double figures. I am confident there are more women in the profession that would merit Fellow.

The planning profession does not perform poorly in female membership. Across Planning Schools and entrants to the profession there is generally a 50:50 split between men and women. The RTPI currently has a female chief executive and about to have a second woman head us up; this is a positive statement by the Institute. Our 25,000th member is a woman, Holly Hobbs working in Powys County Council. But we can do so much more in terms of visible leadership across the profession.

Does visibility matter?

Women Talk Real Estate thinks it does: “Visibility brings about better business opportunities, challenges stereotypes and provides role models for upcoming generations.” These are all important factors for us to embrace.

Only 3.8% of Fellowship applications have been made by women in the history of the RTPI.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 is to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. The UN’s New Urban Agenda states: “Realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. … The systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Agenda is crucial.”

As we know the New Urban Agenda is not solely aimed at poorer parts of the world but across the globe, including the UK and Ireland. It’s a strong message if we have women visibly working towards the achievement of the goals, adding different dimensions and adding value.

Women in Planning has now extended from its original London presence to South Wales and the North West of England, with groups of active professionals creating a network to provide support for CPD, mentoring and leadership, secondments, lobbying and sharing best practice.

The RTPI has signed an equality pledge to have gender balanced speaker panels. As someone that organises many events, this can be challenging, but it shouldn’t be. We do quite well across the RTPI in encouraging women to take up speaker / panellist roles, but we need more women to be willing to take up the challenges. Craig McLaren, National Director in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland was named a ‘Gender Avenger’ when he turned down an invitation to speak on an all-men panel. Well done Craig!

RTPI Fellowship

Fellowship provides recognition for the work that you do that makes a difference, so give thought to applying. Have you contributed to the profession, have you built and inspire teams of planners? Have you made a major personal contribution to the profession to further the science and art of planning for the benefit of the public?

It will add to your visibility and give you that peer endorsement to support your efforts. This is also a message for those of you (men and women) that manage or mentor women. If you see the potential, why not encourage them to apply?

As my new friends at the rugby learned, women are able to add value, but we need to be visible. In the professional world, we need to make ourselves visible and that is down to us, with support from managers and mentors.

For further information about the RTPI’s Fellowship membership class please visit our website.  


Roisin Willmott

Roisin Willmott

Roisin Willmott OBE FRTPI is Director of Wales and Northern Ireland at the Royal Town Planning Institute.