The gender gap is written on the streets of Europe
Whether it is a major road on the outskirts of a metropolis or a tiny city-centre alleyway, in the north of Scandinavia or in the Mediterranean, in Europe’s westernmost city or in struggling Kiev, streets across Europe have at least one thing in common: they honour men far more often than women.
Working with other members of the European Data Journalism Network, we examined 146,327 streets in 30 major European cities in 17 different EU member states or candidate countries. On average, 90.4 percent of streets named after individuals are called after men. In the city with the smallest gender gap – Stockholm – streets named after men still account for more than 80 per cent.
|Our analysis covers the following cities: Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Chisinau, Copenhagen, Debrecen, Gdansk, Genoa, Katowice, Krakow, Kyiv, Lisbon, Lodz, Lyon, Madrid, Milan, Palermo, Paris, Prague, Rome, Sevilla, Stockholm, Turin, Warsaw, Vienna, Wroclaw, and Zagreb.|
Street names typically honour the same type of people: white men who were either wealthy, influential, or both. It’s a subtle yet powerful reminder of who our society values, or has valued, and who it doesn’t. 52,704 streets we monitored are named after an individual. The overall result already hints at the problem: only 9.07% of these are named after a woman, that is 4,774.
Different cities, different women
There is some variability between cities. Firstly, in some regions of Europe, particularly Northern and Central-Eastern Europe, it is relatively uncommon to dedicate streets to individuals. Besides Stockholm, the top cities for female street names are Spanish ones and Copenhagen, although the data for Spain is inflated by the large number of streets named after the various titles of the Virgin Mary (211 streets in just three cities). Conversely, in Athens, Prague and Debrecen, less than 5 percent of streets named after people are named after women.
In total, the streets we surveyed honour around 41,000 different people. Even though Europe is a densely populated area with thousands of years of rich history, only 3,500 individual women have made it onto the streetscapes of the 30 major cities we focused on. Imagine if they all lived at the same time: they could all fit into the flats and houses of a single avenue. This is a subtle but powerful reminder of who is, or has been, valued in our society and who is not. The preponderance of male figures in our streets is also a subliminal but constant force that helps to perpetuate the marginalisation of female contributions to history, art, culture or science.
Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday
The Virgin Mary and Saint Anne are the most popular women in the cities surveyed. However, the majority of streets named after women do not honour religious figures. In general, they celebrate figures who were active in the cultural or scientific field, including writers and artists. Noblewomen and politically active figures are also relatively often honoured across Europe.
However, there are significant differences between cities. For example, both Copenhagen and Krakow celebrate 71 women through their street names. However, only one of the women commemorated in Copenhagen was a religious figure, compared to at least ten in Krakow.
The differences between the cities are much smaller when it comes to the origins of the women who give their names to the streets: apart from a few saints from the Middle East, almost all come from Europe itself. The most notable exceptions are Indian leader Indira Gandhi and South African artist Miriam Makeba.
The gap is not closing
The huge gender gap in Europe’s street names is perhaps not particularly surprising given the centuries-long marginalisation of women in education, public life and the economy. Streetscapes tend to reflect the power relations that were in place when the streets were actually built, which for most cities on our continent was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Thanks to the efforts of many activists and intellectuals, awareness of the over-representation of wealthy white men has grown across Europe. However, the data suggests that this awareness has not yet led to a significant change in street naming. We looked at street naming and renaming practices in some of Europe’s largest cities over the past decade: the data shows that no municipality has come close to closing the gender gap, and some have even perpetuated it. For example, Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan and Valencia continued to dedicate more streets to men than women in 2012-22.
“Since 2017, we have strictly adhered to an equal gender ratio in the naming of streets, honouring one new woman for every new man. However, we still receive many more proposals for male names, about ten times more than female names,” says Antonella Amodio, the official in charge of curating street names in Milan. Greater sensitivity to the issue has led to greater awareness: the city now monitors the gender gap and is building a dedicated website to explore places and monuments dedicated to prominent women and their lives.
Achieving gender parity will not help to close the gender gap – in fact, it would not be enough to dedicate most or even all of the new streets that are built to women. European cities are simply not growing as fast as they used to, with only a few dozen new streets a year. There are currently 42,900 more streets named after men than women in the cities we have included. Even if it were possible to name all new streets after women, it would still take centuries to close such a gap.
Moreover, some academics and activists point out that new streets dedicated to women tend to be located in peripheral areas, in residential neighbourhoods where such women have little visibility. Conversely, male names continue to populate the most prominent streets and squares in the heart of cities. For example, a 2021 study on the streets of Brussels found that “the higher up in the street hierarchy, the fewer women’s names there are”.
How to make progress?
It is difficult to imagine any systematic renaming of existing streets that could eliminate the gender gap. It would be extremely impractical and confusing to change hundreds of thousands of addresses. More viable strategies are to explore other ways of celebrating women in public spaces, such as naming schools, parks or transport hubs after them.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but participatory and bottom-up approaches should be privileged as they can be a real driving force for change. Réka Sáfrány, President of the European Women’s Lobby, agrees: “It is very important that local governments work together with civil society when they decide on street names, and it can be useful to consult the population. In some districts of Budapest, for example, you can vote on who the street should be named after”. Indeed, bottom-up approaches can spark empowering discussions that challenge societal values. Top-down renaming exercises, on the other hand, run the risk of becoming mere PR opportunities for local politicians rather than genuine catalysts for change.
As Sáfrány observes, “We should find a way to connect these good practices and encourage their dissemination from one place to another. It would be very helpful if the EU could help to promote such exchanges”. Mapping Diversity, EDJNet’s project on street names, is designed to facilitate public and participatory debates on gender gaps and gender mainstreaming in public spaces by providing detailed and comparative data on an unprecedented scale. Local communities can now take advantage of freely accessible data to increase women’s representation. To find out more, visit MappingDiversity.eu.
Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.