The Women Who Are Changing Mexico’s Cities

A woman bikes in Mexico City. Photo by Alejandro Luna/Flickr.

In Mexico, the issue of gender often goes unrecognized. A popular blog documents the all-too-common “all male panels” or public events where all the speakers or participants are men, or where women only occupy placeholder positions, like hostesses. Even in sustainable transport and city events, this can be common.

However, progress in women’s representation is slowly becoming a reality, thanks to a growing interest among women in professional fields—like urban and transport planning—typically associated with men.

Creating Progress for Gender Equality in Education, Government and Beyond

Only in 1953 were women granted certain the right to vote in Mexico. Other changes included the international non-discrimination standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). These laws laid the foundation for women’s right to jobs, education and more.

Women in Mexico only first gained access to higher education in 1960. In the 70s, many women began entering the fields of education, psychology and social work, but it was not until the 80s that women began to study a wider range of fields and in the late 90s that women began to enter jobs previously considered masculine. According to a study in 2004, women occupied only 31 percent of the jobs in engineering and technology while men occupied 69 percent.

In addition to the issue of women’s representation in education and entrance to professional fields, women in Mexico often face discrimination and challenges on the job. Cultural stereotypes of what being a woman should be—family, motherhood, a housewife—as well as resistance to women occupying managerial positions can make professional progress difficult. The lack of public policies helping women to participate in management and decision-making positions does not help.

The highest position occupied by a woman in Mexican government has been in federal ministries. The first time a woman occupied a position in a ministry was in the 70s, and since then, there have only been 30 at this level. Despite gradual progress in other aspects of society, there are still fewer women in decision making positions at the national level. Of all middle and senior management positions, just over 27 percent are occupied by women.

While there is less disparity in the social sciences, the disparity is greater in fields typically associated with masculinity in Mexican culture—urban planning, engineering and architecture. This has resulted in fewer women architects and engineers and also fewer women in decision making positions on urban issues. Despite this, the situation is slowly changing. Here, we take a look at a few women who serving as role models for women’s leadership in city issues traditionally dominated by men.

Adriana Lobo

Adriana graduated as a Civil Engineer at the Polytechnic School of the University of Sao Paulo and completed academic credits towards an MBA at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM). She began her career in the 90s directing planning projects in urban and regional transport in seven countries in Latin America and founded her own transport consulting firm in 2001, which she led for 2 years. In 2004, she became the Executive Director of CTS EMBARQ Mexico, making her one of the most specialized leaders in BRT and Integrated Transport systems not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America. Adriana also manages a team of 25 women and 22 men.

Julia Martinez

Julia is known colloquially in Mexico’s climate change community as “The Biologist.” She studied biology at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and started her career working on climate change in Mexico in the early 90s. Climate change was just beginning to emerge as an issue, and Julia was one of the few women taking leadership. From 1995 until 2013, Julia worked in the public sector and in 2014 she joined CTS EMBARQ Mexico. Today, Julia is one of Mexico’s strongest activists on climate change and is one of the leading experts on energy efficiency in buildings. Julia now helps manage ambitious initiatives, such as the Building Efficiency Accelerator in Mexico, a partnership in support of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative that works with cities to improve building efficiency.

Martha Delgado

Martha has been a recognized leader in sustainable development in Mexico for over 25 years. She studied education at the Intercontinental University and has worked in both the public sector and in civil society organizations. Despite opposition, Martha helped create the Mexico City’s public bike share system, ECOBICI. Thanks to Ecobici, Mexico City now sees 35,000 trips by bike on a daily basis. Martha also implemented the Bicycle Mobility Strategy and the program Let’s Bike. More than 20 years later, Martha remains an international leader on climate change.


Sara Topelson

Sara studied architecture at UNAM and art history at the National Institute of Fine Arts. From February 2000 to May 2003, she was the Director of Architecture and Historic Preservation at INBA. She also held the position of Sub-minister of Urban Development and Planning at the Ministry of Social Development. Sara was a key player at a national level in 2012 with the creation of the Ministry of Rural, Urban and Land Development, which separated urban issues from broader social development topics—an important step for urban reform. She was also Minister of the International Union of Architects (UIA), and she became its first woman president in 1996. Sara is currently the General Coordinator of the Center for Research and Documentation Foundation House and continues to lead as a project coordinator for Topelson Grinberg Architects.

Laura Ballesteros

She has worked in both the private sector and the public sector. Before becoming a deputy in the Legislative Assembly of Mexico City, she served as an advisor. She helped facilitate the city’s new Mobility Law and became one of the leading advocates for mobility. Today, she is the Sub-minister of Planning in the Ministry of Mobility of Mexico City, an agency that is also often exclusively male. In this new position, she has worked on the New Traffic Regulation with civil society, incorporating speed reductions and other measures to advance safe and sustainable mobility.


Claudia Sheinbaum

In 2004, Claudia was Minister of Environment in Mexico City and did something unimaginable and unbelievable: under her leadership the first city bike path was built. Claudia studied physics and received her Master’s and PhD in Energy Engineering in UNAM. At first, she was criticized for improving public transport with Metrobus, one of the great milestones in Mexico City’s recent history. Today, Metrobus is considered not only a success in Mexico but internationally. Claudia currently serves as the delegate from Mexico City’s Tlalpan district to improve mobility and development in the area.


Tanya Müller

Tanya has worked in Mexico City’s last two administrations, with Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Angel Mancera in the Ministry of Environment. She holds a PhD in International Agricultural Economics and Management and works as an agronomics engineer. She founded and is currently the President of the Mexican Association of Nature Roofs, which researches and promotes green walls and roofs. She implemented the first green roofs project with Chapingo University and Zurich University, and made Mexico City a pioneer nation-wide by installing flat natural roofs. During her time with the Ministry of Environment, Tanya has made significant progress for energy efficiency issues and, under her leadership, both Ecobici and the Sunday “Move on Bikes” program have expanded. Additionally, she has significantly expanded the bike path network in Mexico City in order to encourage more cycling.

Gisela Méndez

Gisela studied architecture at the Technological Institute of Colima, and she has a Master’s degree in Urban, Regional and Environmental Policies from the University of Architecture of Venice and a PhD in Urbanism from UNAM. She directed the Planning Institute for the city of Colima and served as Director of Research and Capacity Building at CTS EMBARQ Mexico from 2012 until February 2016, when she became the Colima’s Secretary of Mobility—the first at the state level in the country. Gisela is a big inspiration, demonstrating the potential for local activism.


Who are the women leaders who inspire you? Share in the comments below!

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