The only woman in the room

9 March 2022

Incorporating women into public life, especially when leading in fields other than care and social affairs, is essential to bring equality into practice. Women in local politics have much to say about discrimination, stigma and struggles in another traditionally male field. 

Has the situation for women in local politics improved over the years? What is policy work like for women from minority groups? Or are they still likely to be the only women in the room? 

From Madrid, Gothenburg, Zaragoza, Tallinn and Barcelona, women involved in politics and social actions at the local level share their stories. 

A house in 1972 

María Demetri is a Swedish Roma Community counsellor and cultural interpreter in Gothenburg. She is involved in various actions targeted at the Roma community, mainly women. On International Women’s Day, María was engaged in discussions with female local politicians on the inclusion of the Roma community. 

She won the City’s Equality Award for encouraging 45 Roma women to return to school and complete their education during the pandemic. María is committed to motivating women, who are more likely to abandon school and devote themselves to family care, to sign up for adult education in the women-only centres in Gothenburg. 

She feels extra proud to have got so many people to complete their education. “I believe it will make a substantial difference for many. They establish themselves in the labour market on their own, but with a little help from me,” she humbly adds. 

A woman beside the Roma flag
María Demetri, Community counsellor in Gothenburg

María also works in welfare units, where she has become the person contacted most by Roma women. “It is important that women support each other with their experiences and knowledge,” Maria says. Primarily, she assists single young women, many of them with children or who may have experienced abuse. Less frequently, she works with complete families.  

She insists anti-gypsyism exists, and she’s experienced it. When Maria was born in the early ’60s, she used to sleep with her family in a tent in an area where other 8-10 Roma families lived. Her father applied for an apartment, but no one wanted to give them a lease. “After filing a lawsuit against the municipality, we got our own house in 1972. We were not allowed to belong to society on the same terms, and when you lived in tents, you could not succeed in school. Having a place to call home was vital to being a part of society,” she explains. 

Unfortunately, many Roma still do not embrace their origin because they are afraid of being discriminated against, she says, even though “everyone should be able to be who they are without the risk of being discriminated in any way.” 

But the City of Gothenburg has become better at working against discrimination. “This means that we, in our office, also work with acts of discrimination in our community when it comes to other types of discrimination than racism,” Maria explains. For example, the Roma community participated in seminars during Pride week in Gothenburg last year. 

Anti-gipsyism, a fight for all 

“Roma, like other minorities, need the support, alliances of society in general, and that the fundamental rights of these populations are ensured. It is a fight for all,” says Manuela Mayoral Silva, member of the Madrid City Council’s Gipsy Women’s Committee for Equality.  

A woman dressed in black
Manuela Mayoral, member of the Madrid City Council’s Gipsy Women’s Committee for Equality

Manuela represents the Roma community in general and women in particular. From the council and other non-profit organisations, she raises awareness on inequalities and reports discrimination. “My contribution is promoting a fairer city, dismantling stereotypes and prejudices, developing actions that promote academic training, facilitating access to health, housing and employment for Roma families”, she explains. 

She’s experienced those inequalities since she was little. Her first reference was her mother, “a fighter woman, a housewife, who with many difficulties brought her family forward and taught me never to give up.” Later, she was inspired by her fellow Roma mediators for their dedication, ambition, and desire to excel that improved many Roma women’s personal and professional situations. And lastly, Manuela was motivated by Roma women “who can raise their voice and ours, such as Carla Santiago, the first Roma woman senator in Spain, Beatriz Carrillo, member of the Parliament, or Sara Giménez, lawyer and President of the Foundation Secretariado Gitano.” 

However, many women like Manuela face inequalities and anti-Gypsyism and perceive social inclusion in health, education, employment and housing as a gift instead of a right. Manuela also mentions the lack of participation in platforms, boards and forums where people like her could be invited to talk about the difficulties experienced by the community. 

To those women who want to speak up and do it through political work, Manuela advises never to give up. “They are stronger and more valuable than what others think. Set your goals regardless of how long they may take. And walk, those steps can be short but firm in the horizon to which you want to go.” 

The missed social wagon 

Women with disabilities face double inequity. In actions related to disability, Barcelona has considered the gender dimension in, for instance, interventions for labour inclusion, for conciliation of time in the case of caregivers of people with disabilities, and in the studies promoted by the council’s department among others. 

A woman dressed in pink
Vanessa Fuentes, member of the disability board in Barcelona council

A political board represents the area of disability through ten politicians and ten elected people with disabilities. Given that since the last election in June, they are all women, the gender vision on the board has become a high priority and one of the central axes, promoting projects and actions focused on reducing the inequity prevailing in the social root in all areas of life. Vanessa and Marta are two of those women. They work to make visible and sensitise about the stigma, gap and inequalities generated by the double discrimination. 

Vanessa Fuentes decided to become a member “to defend the rights of people with physical disabilities, especially cerebral palsy, underrepresented in political life, and to contribute to improving our quality of life.” 

Vanessa mentions women with disabilities also face challenges in health, assistance, housing, employment, and educational limits requiring specific help for participation. She explains that employment discrimination triggers economic challenges. After struggling to finalise higher education and get complimentary training, Vanessa talks about recruitment companies claiming she is “too qualified for the degree of her disability.” 

“The little information about disability encourages not belonging to the same social wagon,” she concludes. To fight against discrimination, Vanessa appeals to the power of universal participation and dialogue, which together with unique initiatives can be the key to improving inclusion in all areas.  

Inequity is embedded 

Marta Delgadillo speaks for people with psychosocial disabilities on the board. “We, women who have experienced psychiatrisation processes, also called crazy, lunatic or maniacal, are too often exposed to human rights violations,” she says.  

Marta Delgadillo, member of the disability board in Barcelona council.

Marta explains that different forms of discrimination against those women “are invisible, inscribed in our laws and deeply embedded in our institutions. Social stigma is part of this plot,” she says. To fight this inequality, Marta joined local decision-making processes. 

It is not only policies that may be discriminatory, but also the language used in politics. “Many concepts have been trivialised and misused, such as ‘this city is bipolar’ or ‘it practices schizophrenic politics’, or such a leader who wages war ‘is crazy’,” Marta explains. Those sentences assign “to inexplicable malice the experience of madness, which has nothing to do with it,” she states. 

As a woman of reference on the idea of inclusion, she mentions Hannah Arendt for promoting participation and interaction as equal and, at the same time, different people. According to Arendt, no one can be happy without participating in public happiness as equals in the same shared space. So she tells other women to “go out to the streets, to peaceful demonstrations, go to an association, attend assemblies. In short, meet with people with whom to discuss the common good,” she concludes. 

Who are the carers?

“Any functional diversity is minimal present in politics. The promotion of equal conditions among citizens, through their visibility, is essential for a quality democracy. Otherwise, we will live in an unfinished democracy.”  

These are the words of María Arrondo, one of the first women in politics after the dictatorship in Spain (1939-1975). María was a councillor in the Zaragoza city council from 1979 to 1987. Before that, she worked long hours as a domestic worker in Paris. Being the eldest of 8 siblings, she was 19 years old when she emigrated to Paris to earn money for her family. In 1975, she published the book Moi la Bonne (I, the maid), denouncing and vindicating the group of domestic workers.  

Although she went from domestic worker to councillor, says María, care was still present in women’s lives. Care councils were considered less important in politics and assigned to women councillors. In this way, María contributed to creating social and egalitarian policies that are still valid today.  

A woman in black nd white and the sentence "The strength of conviction"
María Arrondo, former councillor in Zaragoza.

“The full incorporation of women into the public sphere is as essential as the incorporation of men into the private one,” she maintains, speaking about the present. The former councillor says that all areas of local politics can and should be developed from a gender perspective. “The perspective of equality must be transversal, or opportunities will be lost in the conquest for rights.”  

But not only women should be represented in the public sphere, but also other minority groups. According to María, due to city councils’ proximity to citizens, they are “privileged channels” to influence the visibility and inclusion of minorities. 

They can favour their participation in the design and development of plans and actions from the municipality, creating public awareness campaigns, or include social responsibility requirements in contracts for the provision of local services aimed at the inclusion of people with disabilities, women, and so on. 

The only woman in the room 

Betina Bischke is the deputy mayor of Social Affairs in Tallinn since it is “a good opportunity to change things for the better, to help people.” 

A woman dressed in blue
Betina Beškina, deputy Mayor of Social Affairs in Tallinn.

Asked about her role models, she mentions former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former President of Finland Tarja Halonen. “But as you can see, there are not so many women.” She remembers having meetings for years where she was the only woman in the room.  

Some things have changed since then, but others remain the same. The wage gap is still a problem, Betina claims. “I hear different people talking about the female and male income, and it is still the way it was years ago. Men are expected to get a better wage because they are supposed to be responsible for their family,” she says.  

Another inequity women face when looking for a job, according to Betina, is that they may become pregnant. Now, however, she is happy to see more women in managing positions in Tallinn. “It’s not a politically correct thing to say, but you have to work harder if you are a woman. In Estonia in 2022, it’s like this,” she adds. 

“I would like to encourage every girl, every woman: you are enough. You are smart enough; you are strong enough to be whoever you want. Find your path, follow it and work hard. You don’t have to be someone else to be a leader or manager to make a career,” Betina concludes. 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer