The European Union is at least 60 years away from reaching complete gender equality, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its associated economic crisis have further aggravated gender inequalities. While women have been overrepresented in the frontline of the pandemic, equal access to the economy has decreased. The high amount of unpaid work has increased, and at the same time, higher unemployment rates put more women at risk of poverty.
The pandemic and the social and economic crisis have also exacerbated domestic violence against women, particularly intimate-partner violence. To sum up: “Even if gender issues have never been so high up in the European political agenda, the effects of the Covid-19 crisis are putting in jeopardy the progress achieved in the past decades in terms of the reduction of gender inequalities in European member states.”
Cities as key players
We need the political commitment and efforts at all political levels in establishing a gender-equal society. The national level is required to take legislative action in fighting discrimination, but cities play a crucial role in creating an environment that supports, empowers and protects women.
Gender equality has been actively addressed by cities all over Europe, acting in all areas of daily life. However, gender inequality is still deeply based and structurally anchored in our society. Outdated role models position women in the private sphere, caring for children, the elderly, husbands, fathers and brothers. The place for men is in the public sphere – in the labour market for the family income, in politics for designing society, in academia, sports and culture.
The Covid-19 pandemic is the most profound setback in the last decades, confronting us with a massive backlash in gender roles and gender division of labour.
Austrian economist Katharina Mader states that we have clearly seen – again – that women are like the “social airbag”, cushioning the effects of crises. Alongside homeschooling, home cooking, supervising children, women are working at the forefront of the pandemic or working from home but additionally carrying the burden of coordination and looking after young and old dependents.
Hence, to guarantee progress and long-lasting changes, we need truly transformative action. Gender equality is a cross-cutting issue that needs to be integrated into all aspects of politics.
Visible. Participating. Leading
In a city of the future, women and men are represented equally – in politics, in public administration, in management positions, in academia and in the public space. Our cities are no longer designed exclusively from a male perspective, policies include the perspectives of all citizens who can engage and participate in city life.
Only 16% of mayors in Europe are women and only 29% of members of regional assemblies in Europe are female, whereas women make up half of the population. If women are underrepresented in politics, their perspectives and needs are missing in the actions taken. This not only prolongs gender inequality, but it also calls into question the credibility of our democratic system.
In our future cities, not only is there a 50/50 representation of women in mandates, but we also make sure that women and men are equally represented in different policy areas – economy, finance and urban planning are no longer male-dominated, whereas socio-cultural fields are no longer the only policy fields where women can engage.
To promote women’s participation and representation, cities need to act at several levels. Equal representation in boards, committees, private companies and public administration hierarchies has to be addressed with binding commitments, like quotas. At the local level, empowering women and offering them opportunities for participation is another crucial aspect.
The cities of the future
In our cities of the future, we support and fund women in different areas, like culture, sports and academia. Working together with young female researchers or artists, supporting them with the resources they need not only empowers them. We also create a city of role models, changing the mindset regarding where women and men belong and what they can achieve.
In the city of the future, we consider the different experiences and needs of all our citizens in urban planning. Our public spaces are more people-friendly, safer, pleasant.
Most European cities were designed with a male-view, not considering any other needs than going from home to work, at mostly set times, by car or public transport. Gender-sensitive planning has proven to be an effective tool in creating equal opportunities in access and participation for all citizens. It considers the needs of persons who are often overlooked, has an eye on the equitable distribution of space and time, supports a planning culture informed by everyday needs and supports the evolution of interdisciplinary planning expertise.
The design of public space is also a powerful tool to make women visible. Monuments and street names mostly remind us of powerful men, creating the impression that women do not belong in the public sphere. Who and what is represented in public spaces sends a message to all citizens about what is valued and who belongs.
In our future cities, the diversity of our population is equally visible and represented in public spaces, in cultural events, art and communication of the government and administration. Citizens of marginalised groups no longer get the feeling of being unseen and unheard, of not belonging. Young women are inspired and empowered because women are equally represented as great thinkers, creators and leaders.
Local governance as role models
To overcome gender inequalities, we need structural changes in all parts of society. We need a fundamental rethink in all minds, in the economy, sports, culture, education, media, academia and many more spheres. Municipalities can take a key role in initiating transformation by offering examples for gender equality.
Tackling outdated gender roles opens opportunities for people of all genders, integrating different perspectives in our politics and enabling the participation of all our citizens, creating stronger identification with our cities and increasing the sense of belonging and engagement for society. Exploring new ways in urban planning and development transforms our streets, parks and squares into thriving, vibrant public space where citizens come together and get connected.
A lot has to change to achieve that vision. This is hard, often demanding, seldom rewarded work. Adherence to traditional role models and behaviour is often the key to social recognition, while gender mainstreaming policies are often seen as “nice to have but not necessary” or even worse, as a threat.
Cities are committed to creating a gender-equal future; there is a lot of expertise not only to empower women but to initiate transformative processes in society. If we want cities to be key players of transformation in the future, they need support at the national and European level. European cities are ready to play their part in this.
As we do not want to wait for 60 more years, there is no alternative to working towards gender equality. Or as Sally Kneeshaw sums it up: “Gender Equal Cities must continue to be addressed and communicated as a fundamental question of justice: an equal right to the city for all”.
* This article was adapted from an essay published in the report “Next Generation EU” Cities: Local Communities in a Post-Pandemic Future, available here.
Marina Hanke is a city councillor of the City of Vienna. She is Vice-Chair of the Committee on European Affairs and a member of the Committee on Housing, Urban Renewal and Women.