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.
A 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.
Separately, we asked senior women in finance and industry to share their personal experiences of living and working in those places, in their own words, to capture the trade-offs and nuances that can't be reflected in a 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."
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.
In Germany, a patriarchal work culture and the lack of good child-care support leaves women underrepresented in the top ranks in business and politics, says Annamaria Olsson, a Berlin-based author and founder of Give Something Back to Berlin, a nonprofit that connects migrants, refugees, and locals.
In London, Everard was walking home during a Covid-19 lockdown when she was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a man later identified as a London police officer. In September, days before Wayne Couzens was handed a whole-life jail term with no possibility of parole for Everard's murder, another young woman, 28-year-old teacher Sabina Nessa, was killed as she walked through a London park.
On average, in the U.K., a woman is killed by a man every three days, according to Femicide Census, which tracks lethal violence against women. Germany faces similar problems.
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."
Mobility—closely linked to safety—is key to creating economic opportunities, according to Mayra Buvinic, senior fellow emeritus at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. "In a safe city, you are more able to look for jobs," she says.
Nevertheless, the Asian capitals of Seoul, Hong Kong, and Tokyo were rated as comparatively safe places to live and work, but were undermined by poor wealth and equality scores.
In Tokyo, many women aged 35-45 quit their jobs as they get married and have children, and if they reenter the workforce, it's often through temporary employment, says Yuriko Koike, who became the city's first female governor in 2016. She says she's aiming to expand child-care services and push companies to make it easier for men to take parental leave.
"One factor preventing gender equality in Japan is the fact that there are few numbers of women in decision-making roles," says Koike. "Strategically raising women to decision-making positions in government and business will make companies and society alike stronger."
While the data shows business cities have a long way to go to level the playing field for working women, the situation is fast-changing, with some notable improvements. Brazil legislated against femicide in 2015, and the United Arab Emirates now bans discrimination on the basis of sex and gender (though, as Human Rights Watch notes, the UAE still affords men many more rights than women). Paid maternity leave recently increased in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Numbers don't tell every story. Amsterdam, famously a city for bicycles, rates poorly for mobility because our metrics focus on walkability and public transport. There are gaps in international data, specifically concerning violence against women, while reporting standards vary around the world.
Several cities that don't provide transparent data, such as Beijing, Singapore, and Dubai, also rated poorly on measures of social freedom or equality. Yet they were given high scores by the women who answered our survey.
Economists agree that the pandemic has set back women's gains everywhere, especially for working mothers who've had to handle a higher burden of child care amid school closures in lockdown. "The Covid-19 pandemic has affected consumer-facing industries the hardest, and they have a much higher female labor force," says Vazquez-Alvarez.
As shown by the testimonies of the women who spoke to us, and the ranking we have compiled, the nuanced reality of life for women around the world reveals real progress alongside stubborn, unyielding challenges.
In Their Words
Toronto scores highest out of the 15 cities for equality and is seen as a safe city with solid maternity and wealth scores. With better transport and mobility, it could have pulled clear of the pack.
Lara Zink, president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets, an advocacy group, says gender equity is becoming an increasing imperative for many Canadian companies and governments.
"I had a 20-plus-year career in capital markets at one of Canada's Big Five banks while raising two children as a single mom, which was both challenging and rewarding," she says. "Today most women working in finance in Toronto take up to 12 months' maternity leave, and many men are now taking advantage of parental leave policies, too. As more men choose to take parental leave, it will help to reduce the stigma attached to maternity leave for women."
"As more men choose to take parental leave, it will help to reduce the stigma attached to maternity leave for women"
Sydney boasts strong GDP per capita and a low gender pay gap. It scored well on workplace equality, despite recent reporting indicating there is much work to do. Like Toronto, issues with mobility limit Sydney's overall score.
Sophia Rahmani, CEO and managing director of investment manager Maple-Brown Abbott Ltd., says returning home to Sydney in 2019 after living overseas in Singapore and the U.S. made her realize inequality in the workplace had been holding her back. Now, it isn't, she says.
"It is a key part of my mission to make sure we stay on this path and continue to build on policies, procedures, and, critically, the firm's culture, so all our team continue to feel that they can be at their best in the workplace," Rahmani says. "I've learnt that, among other things, equality is definitely a feeling. More precisely, inequality is a strong and unsettling feeling."
Singapore registered the top scores for safety and maternity, but the city-state was penalized for poor legal protections and gender pay-gap reporting.
Shiyan Koh, co-founder and general partner of Hustle Fund, a venture capital fund, says she found it liberating to be able to safely go anywhere at night when she relocated to Singapore, after 20 years living in U.S. cities. Legally mandated maternity benefits in the city-state are also a plus, she says.
"There are still cases of discrimination, such as refusing to hire pregnant women, making women redundant during maternity leave, and taking responsibilities away from women," Koh says. "Aware, a Singaporean women's rights advocacy group, says 70% of cases reported to their workplace discrimination advisory group related to pregnancy discrimination. This tells me that, even in Singapore, there are many conversations to be had around gender equality and workplace discrimination."
"There are still cases of discrimination, such as refusing to hire pregnant women, making women redundant during maternity leave, and taking responsibilities away from women"
Paris is dragged down by its safety score, with just 32% saying the city is safe, while homicide rates are relatively high. Maternity provision is good, but the city fails to score above 4 on any single pillar.
Maya Atig, CEO of the French Banking Federation, says it's possible to manage professional and personal life in Paris, with a school system that favors women who work and an accommodating transport network. When she started in finance in the 1990s, it was under the first generation of female leaders, she says.
"Nowadays women account for about half of executives in the French banking sector, and almost 30% of the top executives," Atig says. "Those numbers are steadily increasing. So there are more opportunities for women, and one of the keys to personal and professional development is to be well surrounded."
London scores well on equality but records just 2.91 for safety, the lowest out of the top five cities. Just 34% of women surveyed say the city is safe for them.
Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of media company Future Plc, says that one of the benefits of living in London is the high quality and availability of child care. She says she's working to help women be more successful at her company—split about evenly between men and women—through education.
"For example, if I talk about what it felt like to be pregnant and be on maternity leave," Byng-Thorne says, "I might be able to help all colleagues, regardless of gender, understand the considerations and challenges around having children, being pregnant and family leave, to be more aware about it and the process of coming back to work."
Berlin takes the sixth spot despite a score of 2.69 for safety—just 26% of women say the city feels safe to them. Legal protections, strong social freedoms, and a low gender pay gap bolster the city's ranking.
Annamaria Olsson, an author and founder of the charity Give Something Back to Berlin, says the city feels livable. But women on average earn 18% less than men and retire with 50% less because many stay home with kids, or work part-time or temporary jobs because of a lack of kindergartens and a school system where kids return home very early.
"There should be quotas in companies and politics to ensure women are represented in leadership," she says. "The largest German companies are extremely male-dominated at the top levels. This contributes to a business culture that does not reflect the needs of half the workforce. The #MeToo movement that swept the world mostly passed by Germany. It was not used to looking at sexual misbehavior in the workplace."
Tokyo scored high on safety, with 73% of survey respondents saying they do not experience sexual harassment. Yet Japan's gender pay gap is wide and there is no law mandating equal pay for equal work.
Nana Otsuki, expert director at Monex Inc., a division of financial-services firm Monex Group Inc., says when it comes to safety, Tokyo is "world-renowned." But not when it comes to sexual harassment, despite data showing low levels of such crimes against women and more stringent penalties than previously for the wrongdoers.
Many Japanese women don't speak up even if they experience "an unpleasant incident," she says. "It is a sort of culture among Japanese women to avoid making a scene. Partly because if they did, they could be the ones criticized. To some extent I think the same is true for harassment in the office." With Tokyo aiming to become a "global financial center," Otsuki hopes businesses and policymakers pay more attention to this issue.
"It is a sort of culture among Japanese women to avoid making a scene. Partly because if they did, they could be the ones criticized"
8. Hong Kong
Hong Kong is seen as fairly safe and has the highest mobility score, but life is hampered in other ways, including a low take-up of digital banking, no equal pay law or paid parental leave for fathers.
Johanna Chua, chief Asia-Pacific economist at Citigroup Global Markets, calls Hong Kong a safe, compact city with good transport links, making it "one of the world's most logistically convenient places to work." The biggest challenge is cultural.
"There is a strong cultural bias in Asia to expect women to bear the bulk of family responsibilities," she says. "The flip side is extremely low social acceptance of men being the househusband and, often, significant resistance to men taking a back seat at work to support a wife's career. Thus, female business leaders are rather scarce in Hong Kong." Affordable live-in domestic helpers are a huge help. But the domestic burden often swings back to wives who step back from their careers, Chua says.
9. New York City
The lowest safety score, along with just one pillar—equality—rated close to a 4, means New York struggles to present itself as a truly rounded city for women.
Alexandra Lebenthal, senior adviser at investment bank Houlihan Lokey Inc., has lived and worked in New York her entire life and says the city's infrastructure and public transport have changed dramatically, making it a safe place to work and raise a family. "When I look at how the city emerged from the 1970s, I can only be optimistic about the 2020s," she says.
But working mothers still may struggle. "I had my first child in 1993, just as the Family Medical Leave Act was passed," Lebenthal says. "While groundbreaking, it only entitled women to 12 weeks of unpaid disability leave. For many professional women, having a baby was an exit from their careers. For women who relied on a paycheck, it was challenging."
Amsterdam's positive ratings on equality and wealth are undermined by a very low mobility score. While the city is bike-friendly, it is seen as unwelcoming to pedestrians.
Dies Donker, head of ABN Amro Bank NV's financial institutions team, recollects that her mother was forced to stop work when she got pregnant in the late 1960s. Things are different now, thanks in part to generous maternity and paternity benefits. She says she normally cycles to work within 15 minutes and finds it safe for women at any time of day.
While women and men in the same pay scale receive equal pay at ABN, there are disparities in gender distribution across job levels, Donker says. "Proportionately the number of women in senior positions is still lower," she says. "One of the reasons is that many women, at least in banking, decide to work three days a week, making it more difficult to reach senior positions."
Dubai mirrors the top five, performing better on safety and mobility than on maternity, equality, and wealth. The emirate does not report a gender pay gap figure, has only 53% of women in the workforce, and is ranked poorly on social freedom.
Racha Alkhawaja, director of TPL RMC Ltd., a real estate investment trust management company, says Dubai is a safe city, where work and family life are interconnected. She's been able to find adequate help around the house to juggle a career and ensure the care of her children, she says.
"I would often work in the evenings or weekends when need be," Alkhawaja says. "Distances being much shorter in Dubai means I could leave work, go to school for a parents' meeting and back to work in a couple of hours. That has made a huge difference to me being able to continue my career without compromising my motherhood."
12 Los Angeles
Los Angeles scores higher than New York for safety, but poorer mobility and transport provisions, and California's less-generous parental rights, hit its overall score.
Kara Nortman, partner at Upfront Ventures, a venture capital firm, finds Los Angeles more equitable than other big cities partially because it attracts interesting and diverse people and isn't heavily dependent on one industry. California is a comparatively worker-friendly state, with Los Angeles helping lead the way, she says. Nortman says she would like to change how siloed neighborhoods can be.
"Because the city is so sprawling, we don't organically move between neighborhoods the way people in smaller cities do," she says. "That impacts everything from how we interact with each other to how we get policies enacted at a citywide level."
"Because the city is so sprawling, we don't organically move between neighborhoods the way people in smaller cities do"
Seoul scores poorly on wealth, partly because South Korea's gender pay gap is the widest in our analysis. The city struggles elsewhere, too: It is among only three cities, along with Beijing and São Paulo, of our group of 15 to score below 3 in three pillars.
Heekyung "Jo" Min, executive vice president at CJ Corp., a conglomerate holding company, says Seoul is relatively clean, without drugs and guns, and has a low crime rate. Public transport is spread across the city and runs late. Min, who has also worked in New York, London, and Tokyo, left Seoul in the 1980s to start a career.
She says company policies and laws have since improved to combat cultural barriers including discrimination by age, the perception women should quit work after marriage, and an obvious wage gap. She wishes the workplace culture would change, too. "More people need to recognize and embrace the value of diversity and difference," she says. "Korean society has long been homogeneous, but in the 21st century it should change."
Beijing's overall score is below 3, with only mobility and maternity scores—the city offers 128 days of paid leave for mothers—trending anywhere close to the average.
Jean Liu, president and co-founder of ride-sharing company DiDi Global Inc., says a leap in diversity occurred in Beijing—and China—seven or eight years ago when the digital consumer and marketing revolution took off. "Thanks to the keen awareness and bold criticism from a younger, internet-educated urban generation, once-common gender-insensitive language and practices were washed out rapidly," she says.
She calls Beijing, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou the "Silicon Valleys" of China. When DiDi created China's first women-in-tech organization in 2017, it met with reluctance from male and female colleagues. "Today, with experience through programs including mentorship and motherhood support policies," she says, "many male leaders see the value of diverse voices and perspectives."
15. SÃO PAULO
São Paulo is rated as safe by just 10% of survey respondents, while intimate partner violence is also high. Brazil's wide gender pay gap and poor perceptions of gender equality in the workplace also contribute to Brazil's biggest city ranking last overall.
Rachel Maia, board member of firms including miner Vale SA, says aside from the safety issue, São Paulo is Latin America's regional hub and "a nice place to work, where access to information and culture is easy."
Maia believes it's important to call out discrimination, within the workplace or elsewhere. "I had a not-so-good experience once," she says. "When I bought a black car, a colleague said: 'You are a Black woman in a black car, do you think anyone will be able to see you?' I just said to him: 'Should I think this is funny?'"
—With Kevin Orland, Andreea Papuc, Yoolim Lee, Alexandre Rajbhandari, Aggi Cantrill, Abeer Abu Omar, Takako Taniguchi, Max Abelson, Joost Akkermans, Katie Roof, Katria Alampay, Peter Pae, Coco Liu, Cristiane Lucchesi, and Scott Johnson
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.