1. Environment
November 6, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 2:19pm

Shock news: street names are sexist

By Barbara Speed

Streets are named for all kinds of reasons, but there’s a pretty fair chance that they represent an accolade of some kind for whoever or whatever they’re named after. Discover America, or at least a few islands in the Caribbean? Except streets all across that new land to be named after you, Christopher Columbus. Run out of ideas? Something with the word “King” should work. 

And so, even without looking at the results of a seven city analysis of street names, we could probably predict that a majority of these people rewarded with their very own street name would be male. Most modern cities were founded a while ago, at a time when those esteemed in the community, and responsible for the city’s founding, were likely to be men.


But someone did do that seven city analysis. And the results are, well, exactly what you think.

The analysis, carried out by Aruna Sankaranarayanan and her team at mapping platform Mapbox, looked at street names in San Francisco, London and Paris, and the Indian cities of Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, and Bengaluru. After filtering out highways and running the names through an onomastics (proper names) script, they found that on average, only 27.5 per cent of those streets named after people were named after women.

In a post about the map, Sankaranarayanan notes that the streets named after men werern’t just more numerous: they were also more centrally located. In Paris, for example, most female streets are small connections, rather than long avenues:

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And here’s Mumbai:

Sankaranarayanan is still working on coding the map, and plans to apply the same method to other cities. However, it doesn’t seem likely she’ll find much to undermine her main conclusion: that streets are named mostly after men. 

The masculine bias is, of course, largely a historical hangover: a city planned from scratch now would probably not show such a strong bias. But as Sankaranarayanan notes, we can’t escape the fact that the very fabric of our cities is applauding one gender while neglecting another:  

Places and streets named after personalities are indicators of social hierarchy in a city. Often they are as prestigious as the person they are named after. 

Street names, just like the faces on banknotes and passports, send a message about who we value in society. Maybe, in new developments at least, we should start tipping the balance back in the other direction. 

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