Can changes in the physical environment facilitate gender equality? The answer is yes based on the incident at the Funkabo community youth centre in Kalmar, Sweden. The centre has been redesigned to be equally attractive to boys and girls.
‘We’re still a bit surprised about the strong link between the physical environment and gender equality,’ says Katarina Johansson Storm, who works at the City of Kalmar.
The City has worked with gender mainstreaming for a long time, and is often referred to as one of the leading communities in Sweden in this respect. Gender equality objectives have been broken down to the department level, and a few years ago all staff at the city’s community youth centres completed a so-called JGL programme, which is a course focusing on gender equality.
With the help of development funding from SKL’s programme for sustainable gender equality, a decision was made to evaluate the community youth centres, for example using the so-called 4R method. Although the centres target all children and adolescents in grades 6-9, it was found that twice as many boys as girls came to the facility.
‘We’re still a bit surprised about the strong link between the physical environment and gender equality.’
‘We weren’t surprised. It’s the same story all over the country, but it was still important to get the statistics so we could show the decision-makers concrete numbers on paper,’ says Johansson Storm.
Boys Watched Sports Twice More
The evaluation also showed that boys played video games and watched sports twice as much as girls, while girls spent twice as much time as boys playing games. But boys and girls devoted an equal amount of time to doing crafts, baking and watching films.
What could be done to attract more girls to the centre, and how could the activities be made less gender segregated?
‘Dead plants, loose wiring, ping pong and pool tables dominating entire rooms and wall posters that didn’t mean anything to anybody,’
The group formed to lead the development work quickly concluded that the environments at the centres were rather dull. Two artists were hired.
‘They took pictures, and suddenly we could see what they saw: dead plants, loose wiring, ping pong and pool tables dominating entire rooms and wall posters that didn’t mean anything to anybody,’ says Johansson Storm. ‘It just wasn’t inviting at all.’
Potential for Change
It was decided that Funkabo community youth centre was the most suitable to focus on. At first there was no money available for the project, but thanks to funding from SKL the entrance was moved and mirrors removed – the children should be able to enter the centre without feeling stared at or exposed. The kitchen has been expanded – everybody enjoys baking and there is plenty of room to eat and socialise. The pool table is gone and the room where it used to be has become a film room.
There is also a flexible room offering opportunities for various types of physical activity, such as ping pong on a table that is easy to move and put away. The middle room – the ‘heart’ of the centre – has been converted to a room for socialising with seating in small and larger groups.
The children and adolescents have participated in the remodelling. Sometimes young people tend to make gender-stereotypical choices, which may cause problems when the objective is increased gender equality. In Kalmar the adolescents were invited to help design the café counter in the middle room, but other than that it was the staff that made the final decisions.
One additional effect of the project was that the staff became better aware of the LGBT perspective. They realised that not only girls avoid the traditional youth centre environment – many boys do too. Consequently, efforts are now being made to reach out to this group as well.
The remodelling is a success.
‘Everybody is proud of what has been done at the youth centre,’ says Leif Holmström, staff manager. ‘Future evaluations will tell whether we in fact have managed to make the centre more gender equal, but at least we already know that we have created a very welcoming meeting place. Everybody should be able to feel like they belong here.’
Several other communities are showing interest in the youth centre project in Kalmar. A manual describing the work will become available in 2013.