Katherine Griffiths

The Power of Women’s Leadership in Building Urban Resilience

A resilient city is an inclusive and equitable one. Cities around the world continue to experience dynamic growth, yet a glass ceiling in both the private and public sectors suggests a chronic leadership stress. While women are gradually gaining representation among Executive Committees (EC) in Fortune Global 100 companies, they are still a small minority. In 2017, women accounted for 22% of EC roles in the Americas, 15% in Europe, and only 4% in Asia.  Focusing in on the resilience arena, where post-emergency settings tend to be male-dominated, women, in their role as front-line caregivers to families and their children, are often the first responders and can quickly pinpoint risk areas when  disasters strike. Over the longer term, research shows that smarter decisions are made when more women are at the decision-making table – making them critical actors in securing a resilient future for our cities in Asia Pacific and beyond.

We sat down with Lauren Sorkin, Managing Director for APAC at 100 Resilient Cities, Lina Liakou, Managing Director for EMEA at 100 Resilient Cities and former Chief Resilience Officer for Thessaloniki, Greece, and Beck Dawson, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Sydney, to discuss the role and power of women’s leadership in building urban resilience.

Why is the perspective of women important in building urban resilience?

Lauren Sorkin: With higher rates of social sensitivity, teams with higher proportions of women can be better equipped to break down the silos that impede collaboration, build alliances, and work with colleagues across disciplines – requirements for building urban resilience and designing impactful initiatives with potential for multiple benefits (also known as the resilience dividend). Resilience work demands holistic thinking and respect of systems and interdependencies. Women have an important role to play in facilitating conversations that align values and timelines to deliver better outcomes in our cities.

Lina Liakou: From governance to the economy to society, resilience is a fundamental quality to overcome crisis and move forward. Whether this is related to the private or public sphere, the individual or the community, women have proven that they are, above all, resilient. They have shown that it is more important how you deal with a problem rather than the actual problem itself and this is what determines whether or not you’re going to survive and thrive. This skill and attribute is especially important in the context of urban resilience, which demands thinking holistically about solutions and boldly confronting challenges.

Beck Dawson: Women are key to achieving resilience in Sydney and in all cities. To do so, we need everyone to participate and have their voice heard. From our research, the lived experience of the city is different for women. Safety stresses like domestic violence and security on the street particularly impact women. Access to childcare, workplace flexibility, and reliable transport that links home and jobs are all issues that were raised by women in our consultation. Women are key decision-makers for families, businesses, and government in every part of the city. Their understanding of risks is linked to their connections and responsibilities in our communities. Both women and men want a safer, more connected, and inclusive Sydney. Our job is to ensure 100% of the population has an opportunity to contribute so everyone thrives. This has not been the case to date.

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to work in cities or in urban resilience?

LS: Be confident in being the best at what you do – regardless of assumptions or unwritten rules. In meeting rooms from New Delhi to Singapore, and in regional institutions from the Asian Development Bank to my current role as a leader in civil society, I’ve found that it is the quality of my contributions that carry the day. Our world is increasingly connected and transparent. If you are authentic, respectful, and well prepared you can make a positive difference across vastly different cultural contexts.

LL: We have gone a long way the last decades around women’s rights, still it needs work but above all it requires solidarity, mutual support and common effort between us despite our ages and backgrounds, whether I am an immigrant mother or a corporate executive. All women who aspire to work in cities and help build urban resilience must understand that how we act today determines our future and the future of our children for the establishment of an inclusive and thriving society.

BD: Step up and have a go! We need many more people in cities to get involved in making their city a better place. Young people have a special role to play in planning the future of cities, but also holding more senior leaders to account for what happens now. In our consultations in Sydney, young people were very articulate about what they need from a city. Their personal and family resilience is impacted when cities don’t cater for the needs of children, youth, or women. This was especially true regarding the design of spaces, transport, education, safety, and economic opportunity. Globally connected with technology, young people are also very much citizens of the world. Working on city resilience is a great way to positively impact issues that matter globally, and at home. Women Elders from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Sydney were particularly vocal about the need to support young people to develop their connections to and culture for resilience.

How are cities tackling this issue through their Resilience Strategies? 

LS: Women living in informal or marginal areas are disproportionately affected by sudden shocks as well as everyday stresses – ranging inefficient transportation systems to weak formal economies – yet lack input into the design and management of services and sectors that directly address these stresses. Elevating women as decision-makers and highlighting their added value are important steps that cities can take to promote inclusion and improve resilience-building outcomes.

Through its Resilience Strategy, Surat, India recognized the pressing need to diversify its industry and develop skills to strengthen the urban economy. Beyond introducing alternative industrial sectors such as technology, automobile, and tourism, a key action in the city’s strategy seeks to advance women entrepreneurs and start-up businesses by offering counseling, training, and access to finance. In Medellin, Colombia, a legacy of violence and informality remains a serious challenge for women and youth. The city has taken a holistic approach to resilience planning, pushing for greater engagement across gender and class lines to promote cohesive and committed communities, social stability, security and justice, and effective leadership and management. Strategy actions include championing women-centric programmes such as “Safe Medellin for Women and Girls” and “Women as Peace Builders” aimed at creating safer spaces for women to live and work, while recognizing the ability of women to serve as ambassadors of a culture of peace.

LL: In the process of developing its Resilience Strategy, the city of Barcelona is reimagining the conversation around gender equality and women empowerment at city level. This includes mapping all of the legal and administrative barriers that the municipality structure places knowingly or unknowingly on women and mainstreaming gender perspective in every area of government. It involves fighting gender-based discrimination and creating strong female role models in the city, and also providing a female view and lens in the development of new public transportation, designing of public spaces in the city for women to feel safe and empowered, organizing walking tours to identify and map the built obstacles to women in the city from a pedestrian view and working with schools to engage with young boys around emotions and anger management, as well as reorienting primary education through a lens of feminism and gender equality. Mayor Ada Colau’s government has disrupted the political scene on local level with a powerful social agenda, including a key pillar around tackling the gender imbalances and the strong patriarchal system in Catalunya and Spain and ensuring that they political systems and institutions work to empower women in Barcelona.

BD: Social connectedness and levels of cohesion are key determinants of how a city and community will respond and recover from any kind of emergency or disruption. In other words, being connected matters. Thirty years of academic evidence demonstrates that the diversity of people involved in decision-making trumps almost any other factor of a group, including expertise. This is no different in city making. The ‘Connect for Strength’ direction of Resilient Sydney calls on business, government, and our community to improve equal access to everything the city has to offer – including the equal access to safety, job opportunities, and employment earnings that women in Sydney currently lack. Actions in the Strategy furthermore advocate for better diversity in leadership of organizations and more flexible and adaptable working conditions, as well as support community co-design to improve the way a range of voices, including that of women, are included in city decisions.