View from the Top: When Women Run Cities...

Edited on 10/04/2024

In this next article in the series on gender equality and female leadership in cities we hear some personal views directly from a number of women city leaders and urban experts. The first article of this series that you can read  HERE, presented a review of data on the levels of female political representation at city level in in Europe. 







Lib Peck


Lib was elected to Lambeth Council in London in 2001 and has been Leader since 2012. She gave her views during a panel debate at the Women of the World Festival.

“I grew up in the 1980s very inspired by feminism and peace and disarmament movements. The collective power of the Greenham women challenged traditional ways of political protest. I got into local politics later as a result of putting down roots and wanting to be active in shaping my neighbourhood.

I feel very proud and privileged to now be the Leader of Lambeth Council in an incredibly diverse part of London. Lambeth has a population of over 300,000, a turnover of £1.2 billion and over 3000 people working for us. It’s a serious and complex job to lead the authority.

I think female leadership in cities brings a different prioritisation and greater urgency to some of the problems we face. For example issues like equal pay, childcare, adult social care and safety go to the top of the list and I think faster progress could be made if we had more female politicians.

Why are we holding consultation meetings at the Town Hall? Why are we assuming that’s where people are?


My experience has been that female chairs of planning committees bring different experiences to bear in policy-making that challenge things in a very different way about, for example, what accessible space means. We need to be moving away from formal traditional methods of engagement and the kind of bureaucracy that comes with planning, and away from the legal language that actually pushes people away rather than draws them in. We have to pay attention to the language that we use, the tone we are trying to create, also the techniques. Why are we holding consultation meetings at the Town Hall? Why are we assuming that’s where people are? And if there are 5 people in the audience it does not mean that the community is not interested. That assumption that has been prevalent in city political systems for too long. We need to turn it on its head and go to where people are. Talk to people where they are active. I went out during our last elections to the Portuguese bars in Stockwell and had a very nice evening! I spoke to a lot of people I wouldn't have come across any other way. There are other examples that are less enjoyable but you go out and you communicate.

So female leadership is in part about tone and the kind of communication we engage in. It is not always screaming at people, but it’s working with people and I genuinely feel that that the female leaders I've come across (and I'm not just talking about women in politics) do have a greater tendency towards collaborative partnership working, which is incredibly important. It’s about how the party and the council operates and how we work with the community-the kind of decision making and inclusivity. I also think it's a bit about reclaiming language and having a very clear definition of what a strong political leader is. For me, that means being effective and decisive as well as inclusive.

So female leadership is in part about tone and the kind of communication we engage in.

There is also a different perception of a woman leader from others. For instance, some people feel more comfortable coming to me to have a moan, which I am told they didn’t do with previous male leaders.

In terms of challenges I still walk into too many rooms which are full of men. Too many dinners that I go to are predominantly male. I think if we had more women leaders this that would become even more unacceptable, as well as providing a huge inspiration for younger leaders of the future.

I do feel additional pressure being a woman in a leadership role, to be a good example and succeed. I feel a sense of responsibility as a role model in the way that I go out and conduct business, the way I talk to my staff. I feel a need to show that politics isn’t boring. It’s not the annoying thing that occasionally comes on the TV with men arguing. It’s about the absolute every day fabric of our lives, making decisions about our area.”


Anna Lisa Boni


Anna Lisa is the Secretary General of Eurocities, the network of major European cities. She has 20 years of professional experience in EU public affairs in the field of local and regional government. She previously worked for the city of Bologna in Italy, and has extensive experience with international and European networks and the European Parliament.


Here are some of her reflections about female leadership in cities.

“First of all leadership styles are linked to personality, whether it is a female leader or a male.  And of course it is difficult to generalise. But in my professional career I have made some observations on gender differences.

In all our leaders, be they men or women, we need a good balance of skills and values.

When I was younger there were less women in politics and in positions of leadership. The few that made it were in a way seen as harsher because they had had to fight more  than  their male colleagues to get there....they would have had to have a more dominant personality or adopt more "aggressive" manners to be there. Now I feel there is more  space for  female leaders. But it is also due to the imposed quotas in selection procedures and the fact that political parties have maybe changed the way their representatives  are recruited  and supported. I am thinking also about young people, and therefore young female politicians. The crisis traditional parties are going through is pushing younger people, and  younger women, to propose new ways of doing politics, outside the mainstream, and therefore be active in politics.

 I also think that female leadership at work and in politics depends also on the national context and on what degree women are allowed to combine their family commitments  with  their professional life and involvement in politics. In my home country, Italy, this is difficult without close family support networks. In this sense you still have  discrimination in  Europe, due to the different countries' regulations, working conditions, childcare systems. 

In terms of impact, it’s in part up to personality but also up to female politicians' capacity to lead by looking at policies from a "woman’s” point of view. Very often men lack this  capacity and are therefore incapable of developing more balanced public policies... as said by others it's like looking at the world through only one eye, so you miss out a lot.

female leadership at work and in politics depends also on what degree women are allowed to combine their family commitments  with  their professional life and involvement in politics

I don’t appreciate the fact that female portfolios are still too often culture, education, social affairs.....they are based on traditional gender segregated patterns of study and work.  

Very generally many women have higher expectations about their capacity to deliver and sense of responsibility, they are more likely to think ‘I can’t become the transport member, because I don’t know enough about it.’ Men take it on, whereas women don’t feel qualified enough... you can't generalize this but it does happen.

In all our leaders, be they men or women, we need a good balance of skills and values. It has to be someone who can listen, who is open and democratic, that uses emotional intelligence but that is also strong, decisive, sure of what they want to achieve and their capacities. I think we have a lot of female talent that still remains invisible or just a potential and only if we will create better conditions for women to express their talent and views on the world, could we start looking at it with both our eyes.”


Mariam Khan


Mariam Khan is the youngest councillor on Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe. She gave her views during a panel debate at the Women of the World Festival.


“I was 21 years old when I was elected to represent Washwood Heath on Birmingham City Council in 2011. My uncle was elected when I was 11 years old and politics was part of my life growing up. At the age of 14 we received a letter from the local MP for a residents’ meeting and I remember bugging my mum saying ‘We have to go to this because we can't complain about the problems we have unless we talk to politicians when they invite us’.  I went to the meeting alone and sat there looking around. There were hardly any women and definitely no other young people. From then on I got heavily involved with the youth service, with activism. Some clever person somewhere decided to give the youth panel the opportunity to spend annually £1000 to give grants to other young people.  That responsibility made me feel valued and important, that somebody trusted us enough to make the right decisions. It helped me grow as a person and realise that I can play a really positive role in my area.

It seems to me it's more our way, a women’s way, to look ahead and think outside of the box, to see how we can deal with something longer term, how we can engage with services on the ground

I remember the youth workers always said ‘You’re going to end up in politics Mariam, definitely’. I used to say ‘I'm never ever going to join a political party because they're all liars and all make fake promises and if you tie yourself down to a political party you can't have a voice’. I was into community action. Then my uncle realised I was committed and he started to encourage me and say ‘If you want to make a difference, which you clearly do, why don’t you join one of the three mainstream parties to have an influence at a different level inside the council?’

Washwood is a predominantly Asian area. It is very, very male dominated. The only way I managed to get elected was because the Labour Party decided that we should have all women shortlists. Some feminists completely disagree with this because women should be able to stand and be selected on equal terms with men. I'm biased, because to God's honest truth, if it wasn't an all women shortlist I would not be here today. It would have been very difficult for me to even get a foot in the door in local politics in the area of Birmingham I come from. There is an idea that women don't need to get involved, don't have a reason to. Some women I meet have never voted in election before.

In Birmingham City Council we have to make huge cuts and I sometimes think we are not really thinking very far ahead, just tackling it year on year. It seems to me it's more our way, a women’s way, to look ahead and think outside of the box, to see how we can deal with something longer term, how we can engage with services on the ground, with different organisations, involving different communities that are doing work already. In my role as Chair of Social Cohesion and Community Safety I involve lots and lots of local organisations to give me their views. So when you have evidence sessions for an enquiry, instead of just inviting people from strategic level and directors of different departments and the assistant chief constable in to give you the stats and figures about what's happening and how to deal with XYZ, I get as many local people from different organisations coming in telling us what they are doing. A forward thinking approach is to realise that we've got local people and third sector organisations that don’t just need financial support. We have to keep them involved in the way the council functions and make partnerships. So in terms of long-term thinking if we get more female leaders, I think they’ll be more likely to sort out the problems by using innovative approaches.

It’s really important to encourage women, and all young people to get involved in how the city runs

Safety for females is important. The first thing I did as Chair of Social Cohesion and Community Safety was to decide that relationship violence would be the focus of our annual enquiry. It had not been on the agenda before, not because my colleagues don't want to work on it. It’s just that thinking wasn’t automatically there. We, as women, recognise it. Much of my casework is around relationship violence, which often links to housing issues. My area had all male councillors for over 20 years, but now that I am elected more women have felt comfortable speaking out about domestic abuse and violence.

It’s really important to encourage women, and all young people to get involved in how the city runs. Every time I get a chance to speak to women or young people, I make sure that they can contact me, to come and shadow me and learn more.”


Serena Foracchia


Serena Foracchia was appointed Deputy Mayor of Reggio Emilia in Italy in 2014. Reggio Emilia has been an active city in the URBACT II programme, most recently leading the ENTER HUB network.

“I am finding the role of Deputy Mayor both fascinating and rewarding. You get an overview of the city working on a daily basis. I spend a lot of time in meetings, out and about in the city, and sometimes don't have enough time to sit and record my thoughts. But it's important to be visible and for citizens and stakeholders to feel that they are able to speak to you.

 I have observed that female politicians can bring a greater sensitivity and depth of analysis to the decision-making

Reggio Emilia had a female mayor for 10 years in the past and she was the one who pushed for the now famous Reggio Children initiative and laid the ground for ou

r work on international relations and peace. I have observed that female politicians can bring a greater sensitivity and depth of analysis to the decision-making.

My portfolio includes community cohesion, and after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris I approached the local mosques, with whom I have a permanent dialogue, and was invited to speak in the male part of the building. We had a minute’s silence for the victims. I think this is a very important part of my job.

In terms of the challenges I have the feeling that, as women, we have to work harder to gain the same respect as men. Some decisions are still made by men in informal settings, over dinner for instance, to which women are not always invited. And when we are invited the setting is not one that is necessarily comfortable for us.

I also find that people come to you as a female politician on different matters that they think you are responsible for as a woman. So there is a perception out there of what women city leaders deal with, whether it's true or not.

I think it's important that there is a balance among decision-makers. At the moment we are 50-50 on the executive team of the Council, and that is a good thing. I have had experience of all-female settings that are not necessarily healthier.”


Tricia Hackett


Tricia is an expert on open innovation at The Young Foundation, and works on the URBACT Genius: Open transfer network. She talked about an innovation project in Syracuse in Sicily during the panel debate at the Women of the World Festival.

“The City of Syracuse decided it wanted to focus their urban innovation project on a particular disadvantaged neighbourhood. It's a no go area for the police and suffers from all kinds of high-level deprivation: unemployment, poor sanitation, old infrastructure, schools with broken windows. However it also has some amazing assets. It is next to the sea and has a strong woman who has been involved in the community for the last 30 years who is constantly pushing for change. The city’s programme manager is also female - an architect and planner. So with funding to kick off a process there was a double advantage of two passionate women leaders; one at city level and one working with the community.

social innovation is a female process

The first time the city staff went to the community there they were nearly attacked. There was complete distrust. Fast forward 15 months and there has been a transformation in the relationship between the city and the neighbourhood, achieved by including people in an open way, asking what are some of the things that we can do differently? What are things we can do with not a lot of money and make a positive change?

The city manager was the first woman ever in that post. She loves this project. She has put it on the city's agenda and in fact on the national agenda. It is amazing to see how two female leaders have been the force for change. Their fresh energy combined with the external funding impetus has shifted quite entrenched relationships and created a crack for positive things to start happening. None of it would have happened without the trust from the community inspired by the local activist. It has also led to comments within our URBACT city network that social innovation is a female process.

I think in general terms urban planning has changed to be more participative in the last 10 or 15 years. Planning is traditionally very top-down, technical. The change is to include people, and with more women in planning, to think about space differently. We need to keep involving people, not making a design without asking people what they think of it. I think these changes are in part thanks to work by gender planning experts like Caren Levy at University College London, and there is more work to be done.”

Watch out for the next feature on European policy initaives on gender inclusive cities, and the links with URBACT.




Submitted by Sally Kneeshaw on 31/03/2015
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Sally Kneeshaw

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