What Would A City Run By Women Look Like?

How would a local government run by women change the face of our cities?

You may have read recently that Saudi Arabia was planning to build "women-only" industrial city, where Saudi women would be able to work and live in a man-free environment. It turns out that the story was widely misinterpreted, but it still created an enormous controversy. Supporters suggested that it would be a great commercial success, while detractors believed it would create further degradation of women’s rights in a country where few exist. It appears that in fact, there is no plan for a women-only industrial city, but rather a segregated industrial area for women, built to address the fact that women in Saudi Arabian workplaces do not generally feel welcome or even safe. This has led to near 30% unemployment among women and increasing disenfranchisement in much of the Saudi women’s community.

While I believe the solution may be well intentioned, it falls short of changing the basic cultural challenges that have created the current plight of women in Saudi Arabia and probably does little to encourage women to go to work. I wish them well in this experiment and hope that we are given insights into the results as they unfold.

But the misinterpreted premise was interesting—a city by and for women. What would we see if we could actually create cities where the economy, political structure, and government were fully controlled by women?

While many people may feel challenged (or offended) by my stance that the world is not in a good place and that the dominating masculine viewpoint is a major reason why, few would argue with me that a city run by women would be very different.

Consider women’s attraction to collaboration over competition. Collectives as corporations, such as the Mondragon Corporation of Spain, exemplify the kinds of collaboration we might find in a women-run city. Mondragon’s model of worker cooperatives (the corporation consists of worker cooperatives in the finance, industry, retail, and knowledge sectors) has led it to become the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of assets and the leading business group in the Basque Country.

Mondragon’s business model embraces the often quoted but rarely demonstrated principle that people are its greatest asset. The corporation’s cooperatives are highly participative and rooted in worker commitment to common goals, with a strong social dimension and superior business performance.

This kind of business model is sensitive to workers’ needs and leads to stronger social structures while also decreasing the gap between the richest and the poorest within a company. Everyone benefits from the success of the company—but only if the company succeeds. In a city run by women, I believe that collaborative corporate culture would value work-life balance, flexible work schedules, work-share, and quality childcare. Imagine: corporations designed to be an integral part of the community.

Women want to live (and have their children live) in healthy integrated communities with great childcare, education, health services, cultural recreation, and parks. Women not only often decide how family income gets spent, making 85% of these decisions (which is why there is so much money spent on selling to women) but they also make key decisions about everyday life such as the programming of family time, neighborhoods to live in, parks to frequent, and so on.

I’d put my money on a women-only city and I’d love to see this experiment play out. Given the state of the planet and the challenges we face, what do we have to lose?

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  • SD

    I'm struggling to understand what such an exercise would prove or how we should act on the results. Should such an experiment be a success must we then conclude that women should live on half the planet and men on the other? Should the experiment end in disaster should we conclude that women are incompetent to lead? It seems that the most likely conclusion is that people do best when they work together recognizing one and other's strengths and weaknesses. It seems like a bizarre leap to me that nature would create such clearly complementary genders but not grant us the capacity to live and work together.

    The biggest issue that I have with Brittingham's current flight of fancy is the implication that her experimental city would simply be run by women though not necessarily solely inhabited by women. Would denying the unique needs or inclinations of half the population not result in the very same structural imbalances that the author seems to fixate on in our current societal composition? Perhaps women would thrive in such an environment, but would that not come at the expense of a male's ability to perform? It's been clearly demonstrated, for example, that men and women learn in very different ways and that young boys educated purely by women using techniques geared towards female development are less likely to perform and develop cognitively.

  • Jean Brittingham

    First of all, thanks for your thoughts.  My belief is what we learn from experiential research is far more important than what we can learn from theorizing. If you accept the facts as laid out by researchers from every university and policy body paying attention to gender equity, balance, diversity and performance, the potential for an experiment to "prove the point" becomes pretty compelling. In other words, there is ample evidence that a world where men and women work at parity would be a better world--and yes this includes a more innovative and economically successful world. And yet, things are changing very, very slowly.  A city for women and by women would put some very important hypothesis to work and perhaps give a  working model for how a planet where the population is equally represented in leadership would engage--and most importantly give momentum to the existing power base and influencers to get us there.

  • überfahr

    Thank you. The author's 'stance' that regarding Saudi Arabia's segregation of women: "I wish them well in this experiment and hope that we are given insights into the results as they unfold." .. points to considerable lack of historical and political context regarding gender rights, especially within a paternal dictatorship with public beheadings. It also accents the otherwise stereotypical shrill and media-fueled naive tone that is not representative of our demographical and gender norms. 

  • Douglas Wolf

     I have worked with 2 non-profits run top to bottom by women and both had drama central. Women were mean and nasty back stabbers compared to men who stab people from the front. Humans are wired to compete and the only difference is style 

  • Susan LaMotte

    I actually think any experiment of a group (gender, age, etc) could help us learn fascinating insights about the strength of that group working together in collective. As an HR Consultant (and a woman) I have spent the majority of my career working with women and frankly, find them acting to extremes: to either exemplify the worst stereotyped traits of a woman (catty, too social, emotional) or try too much to act like a man in the workplace.

    I think men and women working together would be a more effective collaboration if corporate America didn't still see such disparity in gender. The US Senate only has 17 female Senators for example. But I'd rather we address the reasons this disparity exists and why women can't just be themselves.

  • Patty

     Well put Susan. The word 'authenticity' seems to be making its rounds these days. Ultimately women have to be faithful to who they are.....born to be...not men and not chatty Kathy's either. There are things we can be doing about pay (women make 81 cents to every dollar a man makes) ... such as asking for a raise and negotiating pay. The more we assert ourselves being true to our own personal values (every woman values something different) the smoother our transition will be from working mom to leader to incorporating both in the workplace. It won't happen overnight. Enough of the pretense. The workplace is a man's world, created by men...and women are visitors...who will ultimately change the workplace if we bring our confident mother, sister, goddess voice to work with us every day.

  • Baxtersbay

    I don't think you have to look far to see what would happen if economy, political structure, and government were fully controlled by women. I think you can see that in many microcosms in this country and the outcome generally isn't any better for them than it is for men.

    There are plenty of businesses out there that have a large number of female managers and even many where female managers are the majority. And if you look in the public sector, I have seen countless non-profit, community-based, and local government organizations started and run by women, where women focus on hiring other woman and they outnumber males 10 to 1, if there is even a man working there at all. 

    What is the outcome? The people I know that work there aren't any happier than the people I know who work for men. The fighting, bad decisions, lazy coworkers, lack of productivity, and bickering that make going to work so miserable for so many don't go away just because you have a woman in charge. If anything, workers are still miserable. They're just miserable for different reasons. 

    The way to fix the problems in the workforce, and the larger problems that extend from them in society, is NOT to look at them as gender issues because there are plenty of males and females in positions of power who have demonstrated that they are incompetent, incapable of effectively leading other people, and only in the positions they are in because of nepotism and gender bias. When that happens, NOBODY wins. Thinking you can fix the problem by hiring more men or more women isn't going to fix anything. What is needed is a focus on finding the BEST people regardless of their gender. 

    Feminism has done a great disservice to this country by convincing many people that women can do everything better and this would be a better world if they were in charge of everything. Sadly, reality has proven than nothing could be further from the truth. There are plenty of women I know who freely admit that they would rather associate with men because they can't stand to socialize with other women. I've seen that same sentiment play out in the workplace, too. 

    Feminism worked when it was about rights and equality. But such movements derail themselves when people start thinking that their kind, whatever their kind may be, would be better at running things than anybody else. That thinking just closes your ears to the needs and opinions of others. In looking at things that way, you invariably wind up putting people in positions of power who focus ONLY on meeting their specific needs at the expense of everyone else's. 

    We don't need women recreating the world to suit just women's needs anymore than we need men recreating it to suit just men's needs. And segregation won't work either. For once, we need smart, intelligent people who are willing to recreate the world to suit EVERY member of the family to make sure that all of their needs are met and nobody has to sacrifice their ego just because they happen to have been born the wrong gender. This world is not going to be fixed by men alone, and it won't be fixed by women alone either. Families and society need both working together, but nothing is ever going to change unless people start to get over themselves and their fantasies about one gender being better for the world than another.

  • SD

    I wonder what the outcry would have looked like if a male author had suggested that perhaps women should go live in their own city. 

  • Larryalobo

    I agree - look at businesses run by women, staffed and run by mostly women, women's organizations and clubs, sports organizations, etc.  How much better or worse or not are they than those run by or mostly populated by men.  Depending on the size of the company, busines, organization, they can mimic some of what living in a city might look like.  Research may show that women have some more inclination to cooperate but when they have others competing with them I'm sure they use a competing mode as well - better than men?  don't know.  If what we call women's way was so much better, in a competitive enviorment, it would take over more than it has.  Women may combnine tools, systems, ways of thinking a bit differently than men but don't know that it's better or worse generally.  You still have to deal with men and women in the end.

  • M_Blair

    Although not run by women, there is a model city where co-ops have been a very strong force. This city is Reggio Emilia in Italy (just north of Bologna). This city boasts an educational approach that has been studied by many professionals including those at Harvard. The area is also one of the strongest economies in Italy -- one where immigration from other parts of  Italy is common. As I understand the story, this cooperation and collaboration came from the resistance movement during World War II. The Allies did not come this far north, and the locals had to ban together. It is a most wonderful story. 

  • Bob Jacobson

    Agreed. There are many examples of successful matrarchal societies.
    I often live in Sweden which is largely matriarchal and well run. Just because gender relations in the USA are a mess doesn't translate into Jean's hypothesis being a priori, universally wrong.