How Serious Is Gender Inequality at Local Government Leadership?: A Quick Assessment of Women Leading Cities and Gender Equality

Tri Rismabarini, the first female mayor in Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia, with other speakers at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2017 in Barcelona. Source: SCEWC.

A couple of weeks ago, the 2017 edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress took place in Barcelona. During the different conferences at the Congress and side events – including the 3rd International Conference of the Specialist Center on PPPs in Smart and Sustainable Cities (PPP for cities) led by IESE -, it was highlighted the need for more gender diversity in decision-making, leadership and management in cities and urban issues.

Although significant improvements have been made towards gender equality globally, in terms of female’s participation in local decision-making and local government, women are still under-represented.

A Global Agenda for Gender Equality and Women in Politics

In 2015, leaders around the world adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals and targets aim at stimulating action in key challenges for humanity and the planet in the next 15 years. Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is a stand-alone goal, Goal 5, and critical to achieve the rest of the SDGs.

More precisely, Target 5.5 of the SDGs aims at “ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life”. In the past two decades significant progress has been made, but still only 23 percent of women globally had seats in parliament in 2017, and just above 30 percent of women had managerial positions worldwide in 2015. 

At a lower level, if we look at the ratio of female workers in the public administration, one of the indicators used in our Cities in Motion Index, we can see that on average, higher progress towards gender equality has been achieved. However, we still find big differences between countries. According to statistics by the ILO, as of 2015, in countries like Latvia, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, Brazil, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway and Portugal, between 70-75 percent of workers in public administration were women. On the other hand, this ratio was only around 30 percent of women working in public administration in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Women Mayors

Recently, a new wave of women leaders is emerging at local level. Cities like Paris, Tokyo, Washington, Rome, Madrid, Sydney, Surabaya, Cape Town, Bucharest, Barcelona, or more recently Montreal, have elected female mayors in the past few years – most of them for the first time. Today, we have more females running for office and being elected as mayors that ever before. Yet, the proportion of women mayors is still a minority.

Although the global share of women elected to local government is currently unknown, with no official statistics of how many female mayors are currently in office, we can find some studies that have analyzed this issue. In 2015, UCLG estimated that fewer than five percent of the world’s mayors were women and just 20 percent of local councilors worldwide were females. Additionally, the City Mayors Foundation, an international think tank dedicated to urban affairs, found out that, as of July 2017, only 26 cities of the 300 largest metropolises were governed by women, which is equivalent to around 8.6 percent. (See Table 1.) As a result, we could say that just around 5-10 percent of world’s cities have women as mayors. Therefore, although the number is rising with recent elections, the proportion of women mayors is still very low.

Table 1. Largest cities with female mayors (as of July 2017)

Source: City Mayors, 2017

Diversity of all forms in political representation is key to ensure equitable and inclusive cities and communities. Gender equality is one of them. Women’s leadership and participation at every level of decision-making is crucial to achieve equality and inclusiveness. Therefore, closing the gender gap in political participation at local level and defining and implementing urban policies with a gender view should be a priority for cities around the world. Are our cities ready to lead gender-sensitive cities and promote gender equality at all levels?

About Ana Isabel Duch

Ana Isabel Duch is a research collaborator at IESE Business School. She holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and a bachelor’s in Business Management and Administration from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF). Before joining IESE, she worked on research and consultancy projects related to socio-economic development and international trade at the European Commission (DG Trade), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) and at ACCIÓ Berlin (Government of Catalonia). Her areas of research interest include sustainable development, global and local governance and international political economy.

About Pascual Berrone

Pascual Berrone (BA, B.Sc., Ph.D.) is associate professor of strategic management and holder of the Schneider Electric Sustainability and Business Strategy Chair at IESE Business School. He is a multi-award-winning researcher whose work on sustainable innovation, corporate governance, CSR and Smart Cities has been published in over a dozen international journals. Among his awards, it is worth mentioned the IBM Faculty Award, which recognizes Berrone’s work in researching and teaching strategies for cities and urban development. Professor Berrone is associate editor of the research journal Organization & Environment and founder of the “Strategic Madrid Group,” an initiative that gathers world-class scholars and practitioners to focus on strategic issues. He is also the academic co-director of the research platform IESE Cities in Motion and academic director of the International Center for Competitiveness (ICC) at IESE.

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