The World’s Top Business Cities Are Still Failing Working Women

Sophie Bierly

No city is doing enough to keep women safe while ending gender inequality.

For the millions of working women in the world’s leading cities for doing business, daily life is often shaped by what they cannot do and how they’re excluded.

Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of how 15 global cities rank for career women shows each failing in several ways. Toronto came in first, scoring 3.66 out of a possible 5, and São Paulo last, with a 2.68. The performance from best to worst reveals that structural and social gender inequalities remain rife everywhere.

The abduction of Sarah Everard from a London street in March by a police officer, who raped and murdered the 33-year-old marketing executive, spurred a furious uproar, encapsulated by one refrain on social media: “She was just walking home.”

Everard’s death put into sharp focus a societal failure to protect women from harm in the British capital. London, which performed well on equality and wealth in the ranking, was held back by its lack of safety, placing fifth overall with a 3.52. Even in places where it’s relatively safe to walk the streets, women are often underpaid or discriminated against at work, according to the findings.

The 15 cities were selected by Bloomberg journalists based on a few criteria: They’re all hubs of commerce in their respective regions, providing a global perspective on gender inequality, and most attract finance and business workers from elsewhere. The ranking is not an exhaustive list of major cities.

We graded them in five areas: safety, mobility, maternity provisions, equality, and wealth (a measure of earning potential and financial independence) and weighted those equally to form an overall ranking.

Each city was measured using publicly available data. Recognizing that data can be patchy and insufficient, we also surveyed at least 200 working women in each location and weighted their responses equally with the data for each of the five pillars of the ranking.

Toronto’s narrow lead reflected its high mark for equality and good ratings on maternity and wealth, but a poor mobility score—a result of traffic problems and an aging subway network. Other global capitals and business hubs, including Sydney and Singapore in second and third, respectively, scored high in one or two pillars but failed to offer protections and opportunity simultaneously.

While Toronto is a “culturally diverse, dynamic, and exciting city,” there’s more to do to achieve gender equality, says Lara Zink, president and chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets, an advocacy group for female professionals in the country’s finance industry. “Women are underrepresented, outranked and usually out-earned, and face an array of structural barriers in the workplace.”

Women in Most Cities Do Not Believe They Have Equality

Our survey asked to what extent do women agree or disagree that they are treated equally with men where they live

Source: Corus/Bloomberg

Cities such as Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore score high on safety but poorly on ensuring protections for women at the very bottom of the labor ladder. “These are the classic city-states with local labor force shortages that rely on hiring labor from low-income countries,” says Rosalia Vazquez-Alvarez, an econometrician and wage specialist at the International Labour Organization.

A significant number of women workers in these cities are employed as domestic cleaners, cooks, or nannies, and are either not formally registered as part of the labor market or simply not surveyed through regular data collection methods, says Vazquez-Alvarez.

European capitals such as Berlin, Paris, and London scored high because of strong maternity and legal rights. Germany offers paid maternity leave for 14 weeks, a generous parental allowance for up to 14 months, and jobs guaranteed for up to three years of parental leave; the U.K. offers six weeks’ paid leave at 90% of wages as well as up to a year off for women and the ability to take paid, shared parental leave.

Gender pay reporting in these European cities also helps ensure a more equitable workforce. However, they rated poorly on safety.

Still, even in cities that ranked relatively higher because of legal protections, such as Berlin and Sydney, women in the workplace face obstacles the higher up the ladder they climb. In Australia, Bloomberg reported about how the concept of “mateship” for male executives fosters an exclusionary culture that hurts women’s careers and chances at top jobs.

Many Women Regularly Face Sexual Harassment

Our survey asked how frequently women experience sexual harassment or other forms of unwanted attention from people they don’t know

Source: Corus/Bloomberg

In São Paulo, only 10% of women surveyed for Bloomberg described the city as a safe place to live, despite recent laws specifically aimed at protecting women. Inequalities at work, including Brazil’s wide gender pay gap, also contributed to the city’s poor ranking.

It’s necessary to refine laws in São Paulo, to change Brazil’s “machismo culture,” so violence against women and the general population won’t be accepted, says Rachel Maia, board member of firms including miner Vale SA and the government-owned bank Banco do Brasil SA. She says she dreams of a day when citizens can “freely walk on the streets without the fear of being robbed or suffering an aggression.”