Wed 15 Apr 2020
Striking statistics make clear that there is far to go before gender parity will be achieved in local government. Although women make up 78% of the overall workforce, the proportions for positions of leadership almost diametrically opposed; only 17% of local authority leaders and 33% of council chief executives are women whilst, following the 2019 council elections, just 35% of councillors are female.
Progress has been slow to occur. Between 1997 and 2017, the representation of women on local councils rose by a just 5%, from 28% to 33%, with a slim 2% increase following the 2019 local elections. In 2017, the Commission on Women in Local Government (run by the Local Government Information Unit and the Fawcett Society) projected that, at the current rate of change, it would take county councils in England 48 years for equality of representation to be realised, and a staggering 82 years in Wales.
Such figures serve neither the efficacy of government nor outcomes for the governed. Local government significantly impacts vital services, from education and adult social care, to housing and jobs. Furthermore, the nature and remit of local government has changed and evolved in recent years, increasing the responsibility shouldered by local authorities. Greater devolution of power has seen the creation of devolved assemblies and broader portfolios for local government, alongside an increasingly important civic and political role for metropolitan mayors. Budget cuts have also forced local councils to reconsider their spending and priorities.
From a point of principle as well as practicality, it is crucial that women are included in these decisions and realignments of power. As the Local Government Commission has pointed out, the services provided by local governments have a particular impact on the lives of women. Furthermore, their research demonstrates that when the leadership of local authorities is more equal and reflective of the communities they serve, the authorities have a greater greater appreciation of the issues facing the community. It follows that needs and perspectives of populations should consequently be better reflected in the decisions and policies that are made.
Research cited in the Commission’s final report, 'Does Local Government Work for Women?', demonstrates this. According to data from the Welsh Assembly, when greater gender equality was achieved after the 2007 elections -- the Assembly was 47% female -- female assembly members played a pivotal role in ensuring that certain gendered issues were on the Assembly’s agenda. 62% of the time, female Assembly Members were responsible for raising childcare as an issue, whilst they were responsible 74% of the time for discussions around domestic violence and 65% of the time for equal pay. As one female councillor quoted in the report asserts, “It was always important to me to put so-called ‘women’s matters’ like child care and health provision on the local radar as I feel women have a different experience and perspective on these matters and are usually more likely to have direct experience of the services on offer”.
It follows, and is worth noting, that greater inclusivity must also extend to other protected characteristics, such as race, age or disabilty. Local governance is overwhelmingly white. According to Local Government Association data cited by the BBC, since 2004 the proportion of white councillors has decreased only very slightly, from 96.5% to 95.8%. By contrast, 13.5% of the overall population are BAME. The Local Government Commission noted a lack of data for other protected characteristics, making identifying issues and charting change more difficult.
Barriers to progress
The final report of the Local Government Commission outlines the significant structural and cultural barriers to the progression of women into leadership positions in local government. These barriers are diverse, ranging from lack of childcare support and flexible working to sexism and a “macho, combative culture” which can “silence women’s voices” and “appropriate their ideas”.
Structurally, the lack of provisions for carers, childcare and maternity leave is pronounced. Fawcett Society data from 2019 revealed that a mere 20 councils (8%) had maternity policies for senior cabinet-level councillors, whilst provisions for ordinary councillors are available in only 7% of councils. Other research has found that inflexible meeting times, which often are scheduled in the evening, presented significant barriers to women’s participation, if they have caring responsibilities. The option to join meetings remotely was almost exclusively unavailable (although we may see some positive changes here following the Covid-19 pandemic). Childcare was also infrequently accommodated. As flexible working, as well as caring and maternity provisions, become increasingly standard in workplaces across the UK, there is no excuse for the absence of these provisions within local government.
Reports of local government culture are equally concerning, however, if not more so. The Local Government Commission found that 38% of female councillors experience sexism, whilst one in ten are subject to sexual harassment. Beyond instances of direct misogyny, the culture in council chambers is reported to be ‘macho’, ‘combative’, and, as a result, ineffective. Men as well as women suffer under this culture. The Commission’s interim report found not only that 63% of women felt that their ideas were overlooked in council meetings, but also that 52% of men felt the same. Across the board, voices are stifled, further calling into question what could be achieved if a more inclusive environment could be fostered in its stead.
What is to be done?
Evidently, there are significant cultural and structural obstacles to women seeking leadership in local government. There are several clear and straightforward steps, involving supportive and consistent provisions for carers and parents -- such as childcare, maternity leave, and greater flexibility of meeting hours and methods – which would radically improve women’s participation from a structural perspective. The Local Government Commission recommends measures including standards committees and codes of conduct to address cultural barriers, including sexism and discrimination.
Whilst addressing these tangible barriers is crucial, further action is required to alter traditional culture and empower women to put themselves forward for leadership positions. The Local Government Commission discovered that networking and mentoring opportunities are markedly fewer for women in local government than for their male counterparts, preventing them from gaining access to the informal groups and conversations where consequential decisions and relationships are forged. Furthermore, whilst 24% of male councillors report lacking in confidence, the figure almost doubles for women, at 44%.
Lift as you climb
Confidence and role models, in accordance with cultural and structural change at an organisational level, are integral to the formation and advancement of female leaders. As this Dods D&I article outlines, the internalisation of barriers and biases inhibits women from building an self-identity as a leader. Women require opportunities to grow into the leaders they aspire to be and to ‘lift as they climb’, by championing and encouraging their peers.
With this understanding in mind, our bespoke ‘Women in Local Government’ event seeks to provide women from across local government with an opportunity to come together and learn valuable leadership lessons from one another. Sessions such as ‘Holding space: developing an executive presence’, ‘Leadership material: a toolkit for positioning yourself as leader’, and ‘Leading a change in culture?’ are designed to equip female delegates with the insights and tools they need to identify and confront the barriers they face. Finally, and importantly, the event is led by women already in senior positions of leadership in local government, thereby providing inspiration for others to follow in their footsteps and further advance equal gender representation in local government.
Women in Local Government will take place online on Thursday, 3rd December 2020.
Fawcett Society, (July 2017). ‘Does Local Government Work for Women? - FINAL REPORT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT COMMISSION’, Fawcett Society, https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/does-local-government-work-for-women-final-report-of-the-local-government-commission
Fawcett Society, (July 2019). ‘New Fawcett Data Reveals That Women’s representation in Local Government ‘at a standstill’, Fawcett Society, https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/news/new-fawcett-data-reveals-that-womens-representation-in-local-government-at-a-standstill
Fawcett Society, (January 2020). ‘Sex and Power 2020’. Fawcett Society, https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/sex-and-power-2020
Wainwright, Daniel (26 April 2019). ‘Council elections: 'Not enough' women and minorities stand’, BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-47947867
Dods D&I (April 2020). ‘If I can see it, I can be it’: Confidence and role models are key to female leadership’. https://www.dodsdiversity.com/news/view,if-i-can-see-it-i-can-be-it-confidence-and-role-models-are-key-to-female-leadership_199.htm
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