International Women’s Day: Diversity in the planning industry

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With International Women’s Day firmly here, Emma Walker, associate director at Turley and chair of the RTPI Northern Ireland Executive Committee, discusses her experience of diversity in the industry and shares her advice for women considering a career in planning

What was it that made you want to pursue a career in the planning industry?

Looking back to my school days, I was always interested in geography. Going to new places was something I really enjoyed. I remember I always wanted a window seat on flights, so I could look down and see whole towns and cities. That was something I was always interested in and I also knew a few people who worked in the development sector too. When it came to careers advice, planning came up as a discipline I could be well suited to. For me, it was as close as I was going to get to becoming an architect because drawing wasn’t my strongest suit! So, I researched into it further and took a place to study town planning at Newcastle University.

Was gender something you were conscious of when making the decision to enter the industry?

I didn’t have any preconceptions about the planning industry in terms of there being a gender bias. I think that’s because my interest in planning stemmed from my interest in geography. When it came to studying geography, certainly from my experience, there wasn’t much of a bias in terms of men or women. The course I took at Newcastle was fairly evenly split too. So, there was no expectation on my part that planning would be a heavily male or female dominated environment.

Has your experience in the industry changed that initial outlook?

At the start of my career, there were a couple of occasions where I was the only woman in the room in some meetings.

There were sometimes when I would notice that men in the room might change their behaviour around me – to be more conscious of their manners, for example. There were also times when I was just starting out that people would look towards the men in the room for advice.

However, as I became more experienced and confident this went away. Overall, I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have worked in companies that have been quite diverse. I’ve been at Turley since 2015 and the company is very good at supporting its people.  We are also employee-owned and value being transparent right across the business. This includes sharing our gender pay gap internally when we were not required to do so and we have put in place an action plan to address this. More widely, the last four chairs of RTPI Northern Ireland have been women, so in my experience there has been a good level of female representation.

Does the planning industry have more to do to support women?

Yes. From my experience planning is more diverse than the development and construction sectors, where the bias towards men is more noticeable, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more for the industry to do.

In terms of how we can best support women in the industry, I think this is ultimately something that individual firms have to take the lead on.

We need to see more women in senior roles, which are still quite male-dominated. Having more women in these senior roles and raising the profile of women in planning generally are two important steps that can help encourage more women into the industry.

What advice would you give to women looking to enter the planning industry?

Don’t come into the industry thinking that it is male dominated because it’s not. Be confident that you have the right to be a planner. Ultimately, people will remember you for your professionalism and the quality of your work. The places we create are for everybody – so everybody should have a say in how they are created.

What will are you doing in support of International Women’s Day?

I’ll be taking part in a breakfast panel discussion in Belfast that’s been arranged by the RTPI and Women in Planning Northern Ireland. Victoria Hill, the chief executive of the RTPI, will be there with me and it should be a tremendous forum for discussing challenges and opportunities for women working across the industry.

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