Sisterhood of the Traveling Plan(ners)

By Kim Selby, AICP, RLA

My mind was already overwhelmed with new ideas about our profession when I speed-walked into “Sisterhood of the Traveling Plan(ners).” (It was day 3 of the National Planning Conference by now, so I knew I needed to rush anywhere to get a seat!) I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but I had circled this session on my program and was dutifully following my own itinerary. I am so glad I did!

This turned out to be the Planning & Women Division’s session. It was a chance to learn from colleagues from all over the country, of varying backgrounds and degrees, just like all the other NPC sessions, but in the near exclusive company of my sister planners. The panelists were overwhelmed, but thrilled, with the turn-out—they had planned for 6 tables and instead had twice that many with several dozen attendees standing. We discussed a list of questions in our table (or floor) groups to learn from our peers and see what we had in common. The larger group discussion compared the table answers and led to open questions of the panel. It was an empowering 1.25 CM! 

While not all of us had experienced outright discrimination, there were many stories of gender bias and frustration:

  1. The only non-administrative female in her workplace who is assumed will write the meeting minutes.
  2. Two women who are excluded from the guys’ lunches and social after-work outings, as well as key decisions in their department.
  3. The meetings where the men shake every hand in the room, except the woman’s. Or worse, she gets a hug.
  4. The staff rotation schedule for working the council’s weekly night meetings that somehow only gets assigned to the female planners.
  5. The universal feeling that we, as women, have to be more prepared than our colleagues in order to earn any recognition.

Not all of the conversation was disheartening. Everyone, from students to the most senior planners, seemed encouraged by the dialogue and the very presence of those who came. We applauded the half dozen men who attended (as curious colleagues and employers) for braving the crowded room full of women and contributing to a healthy, professional environment. We brainstormed ideas how to improve our workplaces, stand up for ourselves and support the women with whom we work.

  1. Don’t let discrimination be tolerated, even jokes. Say something, if you can and if you can’t, reach out to Human Resources, or a mentor. If you have to, find a better place to work.
  2. Get to know your work “sisters” in a social setting—maybe the stereotypical guys’ golf afternoon isn’t appealing, but make the time to get out of the office together to share a meal, start a book group, or try exercising together.
  3. Reach out to the women in leadership above you and ask how you could best support them. Initiate with those ‘sisters’ who are your peers, as well as those less experienced. Support each other. When in doubt, contact the “sisters” you met at the NPC and seek their advice.
  4. Share your experience—the Division, with the help of Cornell University, is studying gender trends in the workplace. Take the survey to share your views and experiences at
  5. Join the Women & Planning Division to continue the conversation.

We don’t have to wait until the next NPC to improve our profession or our workplaces!

Return to May issue of The Washington Planner