© UN Women/Yihui Yuan

Women shape the future

Malala Yousafzai, youngest Nobel Prize laureate ever, said it all in one sentence when she spoke at her 16th birthday at the United Nations in New York in 2013: “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

International Women’s Day, commemorated around the world on 8 March, is about equal opportunities. It “celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic”, as the United Nations formulate it for this year. And it “highlights the gaps that remain”.

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
— Malala Yousafzai

At the frontline of the pandemic

These gaps have been both brought to light and deepened by the pandemic:

  • 76% of the 49 million care workers in the EU, who have been most exposed to the virus, are women.
  • Women are also over-represented in essential services, which remained open during the pandemic: 82% of all cashiers and 95% of domestic cleaners and helpers in the EU are women.
  • Women face increased job insecurity because 84% of the working women aged 15-64 are employed in services, including in the main Covid-hit sectors.
  • Women are also much more likely to take time off to care for children and relatives and during lockdowns often had to combine teleworking and child care.
  • Every week, about 50 women lose their lives to domestic violence in the EU. This has increased during lockdown. The restrictions have also made it harder for victims to get help.

More facts and figures about the impact of Covid-19 on women here

Can we wait 60 more years?

But the coronavirus is not to blame for everything. Even before the pandemic, the European Institute for Gender Equality calculated that the EU is at least 60 years away from reaching complete equality if we continue at the current pace.

Cities, too, which often lead by example, still have some way to go. Only one of six mayors in the EU is a woman, a figure that has only increased by four percentage points over the last ten years.

But they do exist, the female leaders in our cities. Here’s what they have to say on International Women’s Day.

Women in leadership: achieving an equal future

Turku Mayor Minna Arve © Hannu Aaltonen

“Gender equality is a fundamental human rights issue. But it is also an issue of progress, innovation and success. We need every brain and every pair of hands to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of us – be it climate change, circular economy or a pandemic. That is why we want to encourage especially our children, regardless of gender, to be curious, to find their own path and grow to their full potential.” Minna Arve, Mayor of Turku

Gender equality is a fundamental human rights issue. But it is also an issue of progress, innovation and success.
— Minna Arve, Mayor of Turku

“We must fight against the inequality and injustice that women still suffer and end the invisibility of care work – a burden which is mostly borne by women.” Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona – Barcelona is part of CHANGE, the City Hub And Network for Gender Equity; read their statement here

“Gender equality means equal visibility, empowerment and participation of both sexes in all spheres of public and private life. Despite all the efforts and achievements in the field of gender equality, we still have a long way to go.” Jelena Pavičić Vukičević, Acting Mayor of the City of Zagreb (see the whole letter)

“Every year, besides acknowledging the contribution of women to the well-being of our society, our communities and our families, International Women’s day gives us the opportunity to assess structural problems of society that wreak havoc on women’s lives. Job, career and pay-related inequalities still exist, unpaid work in the household is still unequally distributed in families to the detriment of women, domestic violence plagues our society. At the root of all these problems is the patriarchal society which enables misogyny and disempowerment of women. We need to address this issue and stand by women so they can reach their full potential through personal and economic empowerment, as this directly impacts development and growth of the society as a whole. Cluj-Napoca City Hall addressed these issues in a number of programs and projects in the last few years. We give the chance to battered women to start a new life by offering them legal and psychological support, and we also help them with rent costs for a period of up to three years. We also offer affordable daycare services for families with small children, that allow mothers to return to work. We wish to continue to diversify these services in the future, so that no woman feels left behind.” Emese Oláh, Deputy Mayor of Cluj-Napoca

Nathalie Appéré, Mayor of Rennes

“The health crisis is accompanied by an economic and social crisis, which restricts our freedoms, increases vulnerabilities and threatens the women’s rights and equality between women and men. Let us remain vigilant, when the words of Simone de Beauvoir resonate today singularly: ‘Never forget that it will only take a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question.’” Nathalie Appéré, Mayor of Rennes – see more about the activities of Rennes and other cities here

“On this year’s International Women’s Day the City of Hamburg is joining in on the United Nations’ call for ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world’. This year a digital reception will be held at City Hall on March 8th to hear an input on women in top positions and discuss on the means to get more women into the control centers of power – and especially what it takes to make them want to stay there. We need a profound change of culture – in carework and gainful employment – to achieve that women are being understood as natural part of the structures of power and be paid accordingly. Half of the power belongs to women after all. That applies to the economy and businesses but also to politics. Therefore we are working on a parité law for Hamburg to foster an equal participation of women in the parliament and strongly advocate for binding quotas of women in executive boards on the federal level. The Corona pandemic has shown noticeably what we all knew before: despite all achievements there is still quite a way to go to real gender equality and that we need to defend our gains. Hamburg says: Let’s go – now and together!” Katharina Fegebank, Minister of Science, Research, Equality and Districts of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg

We need a profound change of culture. Half of the power belongs to women after all.
— Katharina Fegebank, Deputy Mayor of Hamburg

“On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I would like to highlight that here in Toulouse, we are proud to have numerous eminent women researchers, head of companies and politicians. These remarkable and inspiring women are helping to create value and to change the world but also Toulouse Métropole’s territory through their discoveries and investment. Therefore, the 21st century challenge will be to find a better balance between men and women in all areas, opening up new horizons. In our lands of rugby, women use to break the glass ceiling!” First Vice President Dominique Faure, city of Toulouse

Markéta Vaňková, Mayor of Brno

“Charles Baudelaire said about women that they are gentler than a flower but harder than a stone. Many times, in asserting their rights and seeking to improve their position in the ‘male world’, women have had to use hard diplomacy, sometimes moderated with tenderness, in addition to persistence and strength. Thanks to this, they are equal with men in many countries around the world today in terms of rights, education, health, and employment opportunities – but I cannot omit the fact that, unfortunately, there are still many countries where the previous optimistic statement is far from valid. But even in the places where women already ‘set the pace for the world around them’ together with men, they still have something to strive for. As a politician, in addition to eight men, only the second woman to head the City of Brno as mayor during the 32-year history of freedom in our country, I know that the active involvement of us women in politics is still a relatively distant goal, especially in my country. We will still need a lot of energy to achieve it. And this is definitely not the only topic we could mention. On the occasion of International Women´s Day, I therefore wish all women to always have as much strength as possible to fight hard but also gently for their cause and to find equal and fair partners in men.” Markéta Vaňková, Mayor of Brno

“Glasgow is a city that prides itself on our egalitarian spirit but that hasn’t always translated into reality for women and girls in the city. But we are also a city that is constantly evolving. Recent political change at local government level – when I was elected as only the second woman leader in the city’s history and the first in 30 years – has been followed by cultural change. Resolving long-standing and ingrained gender inequalities is now a top political priority. My proudest achievement in my four years as leader of Glasgow City Council has been delivering equal pay for thousands of low-paid women workers discriminated against for generations by previous administrations. And on one of the most pioneering policies of recent times, the provision of free sanitary products, where Scotland led the way for the world and Glasgow led the way for Scotland. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we mark the huge progress that has been made towards gender equality but remain vigilant and determined to root out the many barriers that continue to be placed in the way of women and girls achieving their full potential, and say once again: there is no justice without gender justice.” Susan Aitken, Leader Glasgow City Council

My proudest achievement has been delivering equal pay for thousands of low-paid women workers.
— Susan Aitken, Leader Glasgow City Council
Fatma Şahin, mayor of Gaziantep

“In order to establish social peace, dialogue and wellbeing, the existence of women in politics is required. Transporting the cultural and moral values to each and every generation, the women’s presence in our council will enable policy making according to mentioned values and advance our country to a step forward.” Fatma Şahin, Mayor of Gaziantep

“On International Women’s Day, Vantaa celebrates online the brave women in our city’s history from the 19th century onwards, whose influence can still be seen today.” Ritva Viljanen, Mayor of Vantaa

“Dortmund also takes International Women’s Day as an opportunity to bring gender equality issues to the focus of public attention with a variety of activities and events. We have many committed women’s associations in Dortmund that work together with the City of Dortmund to promote equal opportunities and women’s rights. We can be proud of this in Dortmund!” Maresa Feldmann, Equal Opportunities Officer, City of Dortmund

See some examples of city activities here

Vienna celebrates International Women’s Day with the motto “Women shape the future”, which has inspired our headline – dankeschön!

© City of Vienna

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer