Women in Politics: The struggle and triumph for equality

4 June 2024

In a traditionally male-dominated landscape, women are increasingly making their voices heard in political arenas across Europe.

Women currently represent only 18.2% of mayors in the EU, but that’s an increase from 13% in 2011. Additionally, 34.5% of local council members are women today, up from 30.5% in 2011.

“All these figures, and similar numbers at the national and EU level,” says Giovanna Coi, Journalist and Visual Producer at Politico, “show that while progress is there, it is still quite slow and very unequal, with [EU] countries like Finland and Sweden leading the way, while in Romania, Lithuania and Greece less than 1 in 10 mayors was a woman in 2023,” according to EIGE.

“This isn’t an issue of women not trying hard enough or not caring about politics; it’s about a system that’s not designed to correct these imbalances to make politics safer and more welcoming not just for women, but for all groups that are traditionally underrepresented,” Coi explains.

Despite odds, from Lodz to Lyon, and from Bordeaux to Bologna, female politicians are challenging the status quo, driven by a commitment to equality and a determination to shape a better future.

Women & men in power

“Politics is not a man’s world, but it’s definitely built to be a man’s world,” with those words, Coi opened the session of the Leaders Women Circle in Cluj-Napoca – a platform where female politicians could share their experiences and ideas.

For Coi, violence and harassment, horizontal and vertical segregation, and lack of support are some of the problems that stand out when talking with female politicians.

“It’s not easy for women to be politicians,” admits Hanna Zdanowska, elected Mayor of Lodz four times. She encapsulates the frustration and drive that propels many women into politics. “I decided to become one because I was angry. They were not doing anything for the future generations. If nobody gives me the possibility to keep my child in my city, in my country, I will do it.”

Finland and Sweden lead the way, while in Romania, Lithuania and Greece less than 1 in 10 mayors was a woman in 2023
— Giovanna Coi
Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz

Her determination has had a ripple effect. In her latest election, four other women competed for her position. Now, 15 out of the 28 city council members are women.

“This is my idea to change the world, and I decided to do it myself,” she asserts.

Many of the problems that make women lag in positions of power would be addressed and solved if there were more women in politics and especially in decision-making roles, according to Coi. “Some promising examples from several European countries show us that gender quotas in candidate lists can substantially improve gender balance at all levels,” says Coi. “In the absence of such legislation, parties can also adopt similar initiatives, and be stronger advocates for equality more broadly.”

This isn’t an issue of women not trying hard enough or not caring about politics; it’s about a system that’s not designed to correct these imbalances to make politics safer and more welcoming
— Giovanna Coi

For Hélène Duvivier, Vice-President of Lyon Metropole, women must empower other women. There is not enough institutional support and “we can’t trust men in politics; they are there and want to stay there.”

That’s why Susanne Nordling, Chair of the International Committee of Solna, believes in the power of helping one another across borders. Nordling has mentored female mayors from countries such as Moldova, Serbia, Montenegro, and Tanzania.

Private VS political life

Luckily for Céline Papin, Vice President of Bordeaux Metropole, her party’s commitment to equality has been a significant support. However, balancing private and political life remains a challenge, she says. For example, “political life is not made for single mothers,” she says. The absence of maternity leave for mayors in France is another example that highlights the systemic barriers that women face. “A benefit for women is a benefit for all,” she adds, emphasising the broader societal gains from gender equality in politics.

“The lack of measures and structures to maintain work-life balance is also a huge issue for female politicians, especially those with family and care responsibilities,” says Coi. “We’re talking late hours in the office, lack of flexibility in schedule to accommodate family commitments, lack of childcare support, and so forth.”

Anna Lisa Boni at the Women leaders Circle

Indeed, cultural and structural challenges remain in politics, affecting mostly women. Anna Lisa Boni, Deputy Mayor of Bologna adds that evening meetings are standard, disadvantaging women who often feel they should be at home. “All women who have kids struggle,” she notes.

In Munich, the administration found a middle-ground solution. Julia Schmitt-Thiel, City Councillor of Munich, shares that meetings after 4 pm are set up to be accessible online.

I decided to become one [politician] because I was angry.
— Hanna Zdanowska

Piia Elo, Deputy Mayor from Turku, highlights that not only gender equality should be present in politics so women can develop their work accordingly, but equality in the family is key to political participation. In an ideal world, as women share housework and family tasks, constraints in accessing and maintaining their position in power would be reduced.

The political world, Elo adds, often dictated by men’s schedules, needs reform. Schmitt-Thiel agrees adding that men should be onboard. “But how can we do that?” she wonders.

The road ahead

Reducing the gender gap in (local) politics requires collaborative work among all levels of government. “The European Parliament should keep protecting women’s rights,” states Astrid Rompolt, member of the City Council of Vienna.

Mayor of Manchester Bev Craig

City councils such as Manchester’s, with 55% women, set a benchmark. Manchester Mayor Bev Craig advocates for inclusivity, ensuring women of colour and members of the LGBT community also have opportunities. “If we have this principle of gender equality, it has to be equality for everyone,” she states.

Unfortunately, according to Bilyana Raeva, Deputy Mayor of Varnaa, young girls still perceive politics as a male domain, reflecting societal biases. However, the political sphere starts to have role models such as Maral Koohestanian, Deputy Mayor of Wiesbaden elected at the age 31, or Magnea Gna Johannsdottir, part of Reykjavik City Council at only 25 years old, becoming the youngest Reykjavik City Council representative in history.

Gna Johannsdottir calls for systemic change loud and clear. “We have to pay women in politics; it’s a job,” she argues, urging for an acknowledgement of biases and a crackdown on harassment.

This is my idea to change the world, and I decided to do it myself
— Hanna Zdanowska

Not only do women have to get paid as much as men, but they should stop being targeted with extra violence. Coi says that the story of Lavinia Bianchi, a 26-year-old city councillor from Civitanova Marche, stuck with her. Bianchi and other female elected representatives had been verbally attacked by other members of the municipal council and subject to threats on social media.

“She regularly denounced these attacks publicly and reported them to the authorities, but perpetrators were never prosecuted,” Coi explains. “Despite all these struggles, she’s decided to stay in politics because she thinks her presence — and that of other women — is essential to dismantle the chauvinistic system of politics.”

Unfortunately, a more common case is that women leave politics due to the harassment they experience.

The Women Leaders Circle

The stories of these women highlight a common theme: the need for systemic change to accommodate and encourage female participation in politics. While progress has been made, the road ahead requires continuous effort and solidarity. As these women push for a more inclusive and equitable political landscape, they pave the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps.

The Women Leaders Circle Breakfast took place during Eurocities Annual Conference 2024 in Cluj-Napoca. The session provided a platform for female leaders to share experiences, struggles, ideas and opinions. Eurocities taskforce on gender equality gathered women mayors and members of the European Parliament on 8 March to discuss the obstacles women face and the policies that put gender equality at the centre.

If we have this principle of gender equality, it has to be equality for everyone
— Bev Craig

Addressing the gender leadership gap in city governments and recognising the imperative for exchange, capacity building, and networking opportunities for female politicians is the aim of the Eurocities Women City Leaders Mentorship programme. In the programme, women new to the political sector can be mentored by more experienced female politicians. It aims to address all challenges mentioned above by fostering a supportive network that promotes knowledge exchange, enhances leadership skills and champions gender equality in city governments.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer