In a world that fails women, cities step up

8 March 2024

2030 is the deadline for the UN’s economic, social and environmental targets of sustainable development. Goal 5 of the 17 SDGs seeks to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” But is the world on the right path to achieving gender equality in barely six years?

According to The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023, at the current rate, it will take “an estimated 300 years to end child marriage, 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and 47 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments.”

Those figures prove the world is failing – and will continue to fail – to provide women with the same rights, protection and empowerment as their male counterparts. For this to change, new generations need female role models in history and culture, and in fields frequently dominated and designed by men, such as tech and scientific professions and decision-making positions.

Women are not in politics

As in many other fields, women are underrepresented in politics. How can they make gender-sensitive policies if they are not in power? How can we strengthen democracy without taking women on board?

Gender balance at the local level is doing much better than in European institutions but worse than at the national level, if we look at the average decision-making positions in EU countries, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality.

58% of the government in Athens are women, 46% in the local parliament. These figures are much higher than the national average, which is only 6%, reports Athens Deputy Mayor Maria Stratigaki. In the 27 member states of the EU, women mayors comprise only 18.2% of the total.

“Both people and policies have to set up a new local authorities ecosystem that can bring more women and more feminist issues around,” adds Stratigaki. “The first thing we did was to set up a campaign for sexual harassment.”

Stratigaki spoke in the online feminist lunch organised by Eurocities taskforce on gender equality last 6 March. Women mayors and members of the European Parliament gathered to discuss the obstacles women face and the policies that put gender equality at the centre.

Online feminist lunch
Cities are fantastic examples of what we can achieve all over Europe.
— Member of the European Parliament Evelyn Regner

“Women know how to be politicians. We’re inclusive, determined, committed, and we get things done,” says the Councillor and former Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland. “However, we’ve inherited a political, social and economic structure designed by men.”

Gilliland stressed that it is not only about capacity or willingness but also access to opportunities. “We need to be put forward. We need support, and often, that means displacing men, or better, men displacing themselves, stepping aside and pushing women ahead.”

Women are not free from violence

Women are more likely to experience domestic violence, but also violence in the public sphere. According to a study published by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), one reason for the underrepresentation of women in politics is the pervasive violence they face.

Annelies Coessens, Gender and Diversity Officer at CEMR, reports that “this violence acts as a very strong barrier and even a discouragement, and undermines the very foundation of democratic values.”

The violence targeted at women in political positions can take many different forms, from physical assault to verbal and mental abuse, online hate speech, sexual harassment, or sexist and sexual remarks. The use of the internet has only made it worse. “Our survey reveals that 28% of local elected women face cyber violence. Yet two out of three suffer in silence, 32% quit social media, and a quarter decide to be less vocal during their political journey,” Coessens explains.

By looking at urban planning through a feminist lens where women are not an after-thought in the design of our public space and transport systems, we can co-create positive outcomes for everyone and generations to come
— Councillor Anne McTaggart, City Convenor for Communities and Equalities in Glasgow

Tüttő Kata Zsuzsanna, Deputy Mayor of Budapest, reports that the situation in her country is extreme. “I would never enter Hungarian politics if I was a newcomer. You get opposition and propaganda attacking not just you but also your family and your children. What we do in Hungary is try to stay alive.”

Women are not paid fairly

Women are still behind in high positions in private companies and decision-making seats, which comes with visibility and power, and earnings, which comes with independence and power. Women are more likely to engage in unpaid care work and low-income jobs and be economically discriminated against when occupying the same positions as their male peers. The gender pay gap in the EU stands at 16% and has barely changed in the last decade.

For Amani Loubani, Deputy Mayor in Malmo, actions to combat gender disparities should be concrete, measurable and have a follow-up plan. Also, she remarked that mainstream policies require funding.

One of these actions is the gender equality strategy 2020-2025, the framework of directives such as Women on Boards and the Pay Transparency Directive. For Member of the European Parliament Evelyn Regner, the strategy is an achievement EU institutions made. “We never had so many legislative feminist files on gender equality in the European Parliament at the same time,” Regner concludes.

Not only the EU, but cities are steping up to reduce the gender gap. Annette Christie, City Convener for Culture, Sport and International Relations in Glasgow, proudly shared the city’s milestone in eradicating gender disparities in incomes. “We wanted to resolve a decade-long equal pay dispute which had discriminated against women workers and I’m glad to say that we did that in our first Council term.”

Women at work are also the focus of International Women’s Day’s actions developed by Lille this year. Precisely, the metropole focuses on the glass ceiling that women are confronted with when accessing jobs or promotions in their careers. Local women will tell their stories to launch a podcast about the topic and organise a conference for public employees called ‘The glass ceiling and career paths.’

Our cities will remain safe places for women from all origins, ages and sexual orientations.
— Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona

Women are not present in urban planning

Are urban environments designed by women and for women’s needs? Are streets safe for women? Are female historical characters represented in public spaces such as municipal buildings or street names?

The European Data Journalism Network analysed 30 of the biggest cities in Europe to conclude that only 9% of the streets are named after women, the Holy Mother and Saint Anne being the most popular.

The truth is that urban planning is also gender-biased. In ‘Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, the author Criado Perez presents exhaustive data to argue that gender-biased urban design affects women’s mobility and opportunities, such as the seats and routes and timetables in public transportation, public toilets, urban furniture, or disregarded limited childcare facilities.

Transport and how women navigate the city is the first topic addressed in Glasgow by a feminist urbanism working group that discusses how to incorporate women’s experiences and embed gender equality into the forthcoming City Development Plan.

Women know how to be politicians - We're inclusive, determined, committed and we get things done, but we've inherited a political, social and economic structure that was designed by men.
— Councillor and former Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland

Councillor Anne McTaggart, City Convenor for Communities and Equalities in Glasgow, says that “by looking at urban planning through a feminist lens where women are not an afterthought in the design of our public space and transport systems, we can co-create positive outcomes for everyone and generations to come where life, work, and services are better integrated.”

In addition, on the occasion of 8 March, a group of female elected members came together with Council officers and stakeholders to discuss what ‘Her City’ could look like for women and girls in Glasgow. The group includes the perspective of girls in developing feminist solutions. “Women and girls must be central to all our policy-making and strategies,” adds Christie.

Councillor Anne McTaggart at the most recent Girls4Equality group meeting

Women are finding support

Many obstacles exist that women have to face to achieve the same as their male counterparts, but cities are committed to implementing gender equality policies. “There are great initiatives that are happening at the local level, and a lot of times, they are not recognised,” adds Coessens.

Women and girls have to be central to all our policy-making and strategies.
— Annette Christie, City Convener for Culture, Sport and International Relations in Glasgow

For example, the commitment of Vienna brought the council to survey women to find out their needs after the pandemic. Based on the results, the city opened a fifth shelter for women and children affected by domestic violence, created a new women’s health centre, launched a campaign against period poverty, increased scholarships for further technical training, and extended Daughters’ Day to kindergartens and elementary schools.

“We are trying to create a strong network of supportive measures for women with a combination of protection against violence across the whole city,” explains Haase Susanne, Councillor of Vienna.

This year, the city celebrates the first Women’s Week by offering over 100 events supporting girls and women, ranging from girl empower workshops and women entrepreneur training to feminist walks and herstorytelling events to information programmes on women’s health.

Moreover, the city has mobilised more than 2,000 locals to participate in cultural activities such as tours of women politicians, gender-sensitive exhibitions, concerts of female artists, and booths to offer information on health, work, and education, among others.

Women are becoming visible

Poster of the local role models campaign

Likewise, Zaragoza is also coordinating several actions for Women’s Day. The city focuses on profiling local women as role models in various sectors, such as sports, art, public services, private companies, science and non-profits.

We are trying to create a strong network of supportive measures for woman with a combination of protection against violence across the whole city.
— Haase Susanne, Councillor of Vienna.

“They are people from Zaragoza who, from their town and sectors, make a more egalitarian world where women play an essential and relevant role. With this campaign, the city wants to give them visibility so that the young girls have close references,” representatives from the city council state.

“Cities and City Halls play a paramount role in reducing gender gaps,” says Marián Orós, Councillor for Social Policy of the Zaragoza City Council. “In the end, we are the closest administration for citizens and, besides competencies, we see the necessities straight into the eye of those suffering from inequalities.”

The council also organised art exhibitions and a more comprehensive programme of events and workshops focused on innovation and technology to identify good practices with the perspective of innovation and equality that startups, technology centres, research, education and financial entities can carry in their activities.

Role models in sports are what Nantes is focusing on this year, as the city will host some of the female and male soccer games during the Paris Summer Olympic Games. The events honour Alice Milliat, a pioneer and advocate for women in sport. “She did so much to promote women’s sport. We wanted to highlight the place of women in sport and the shared commitment of all those involved in our region to changing attitudes and making concrete progress towards equality through sport,” explains Mahaut Bertu, Deputy Mayor for Equality. The French city runs an exceptional plan: to make Nantes the first non-sexist city in France by 2030.

Also focusing on influencing new generations, Brussels launched the campaign “Let’s be the best influencers for the future of young people” to deconstruct gender stereotypes.

“This campaign opens our eyes to the influence of those around us in the daily lives of girls and boys, and how important the choice of words and behaviour is in freeing ourselves from a gendered vision of society and making the best choices for ourselves,” says the Secretary of State for the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible for Equal Opportunities.

We never had in European Parliament so many legislative feminists files on gender equality at the same time.
— Member of the European Parliament Evelyn Regner


Traditional gender roles affect both men and women. “We need to make it clear that feminism is about making everyone’s life better, not just women’s,” states Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona for the 2030 Agenda, the Digital Transition and International Relations.     

Women deserve more

Women deserve spaces to speak up. “We are very proud of our extremely productive taskforce,” says Dorthe Nielsen, Executive Director at Eurocities. “It is both our internal watchdog and a very progressive advocacy arm of Eurocities.”

For a “more feminist Europe that starts in cities,” Nielsen mentions five agendas in which gender should be considered – political, with women’s rights advocates, policy, bringing empowerment and protection, funding to “ensure that cities have adequate means to implement those protections,” mindset, “where we talk with our boys about what is consent and a relationship between men and women”, and governance.

Regner adds that a lot has been achieved and “it was only possible because of close joint cooperation, pushing, being demanding, being feminist, being loud, being visible and in this regard, Eurocities is an absolute not only important partner but player and giver of ideas.”

Violence [against women mayors] acts as a very strong barrier and even a discouragement, and undermines the very foundation of democratic values.
— Annelies Coessens, Gender and Diversity Officer at CEMR

Last year, Eurocities launched a statement on women’s rights and gender equality. However, Eurocities keeps its all-year commitment to fighting gender discrimination through actions such as the inclusivecities4all campaign, in which municipalities pledge to the European Pillar of Social Rights. Under the campaign’s umbrella, Bologna, Brussels, Ljubljana, Gijon, Lyon, Madrid, Nantes and Vienna have pledged to principle two of the pillar – gender equality.

Local governments will continue to work for significant change, supporting and empowering women and girls. Regner adds, “Cities are fantastic examples of what we can achieve all over Europe.”

“If the EU wants to be more feminist, it needs to listen to us,” Bonet remarks. “We will continue to be brave and ambitious no matter how hard things get. We will continue mainstreaming gender equality in all our policies, from urban planning to mobility or social services. Our cities will remain safe places for women from all origins, ages and sexual orientations.”

“To get anything done, especially when it comes to equality for women, you must be bold and fearless,” adds Christie. Cities and women mayors are speaking up. If we can not be free, then let’s be loud.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer