Women in Local Government – new report from the Fawcett Society and the LGiU

2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave votes to some women for the first time. But nearly 100 years on, we are still struggling to get to a position of equality when it comes to women’s political representation, writes Lauren Lucas.

The proportion of women in Parliament has improved steadily (from a low base) by 10 percentage points in the last 10 years. By contrast, in local government politics this figure has flatlined at around a third of all councillors. Only 17 percent of council leaders and none of the six metro mayors are women. At this rate of progress, it will be 48 years before we achieve a local political class that represents the gender-balance of its community in English county councils.

Why is this? Today, we are launching a report with the Fawcett Society that looks into these challenges and proposes some solutions. Does Local Government Work for Women? is the result of a year-long, cross party Commission led by Dame Margaret Hodge and Gillian Keegan MP and drawing on evidence from hundreds of councillors across England and Wales.

The Commission has found that women face multiple barriers to entering and progressing in local government.

Firstly, there is a lack of flexibility in the role of councillor which works against women. Just four percent of local councils in England have a formal maternity, paternity or parental leave policy in place for councillors. Help with the costs of childcare is patchy, with some councils not offering any support at all. It is not possible for local councils to use technology for councillors to attend meetings remotely, which creates additional barriers for women, particularly those with caring responsibilities.

Secondly, there are significant cultural barriers. Sexism is commonplace in local government with almost four in ten female councillors having experienced sexist comments from within their own party, and a third from their council colleagues. Women also reported finding it difficult to access informal networks where decision making may take place.

Thirdly, there is an issue with incumbency and lack of ‘churn’ in councillor roles. Eighty percent of council seats go to incumbents at each election, making it very difficult for women and minority groups to break through. Research suggests men tend to remain in their roles for longer – of those councillors serving for 20 years or more, three in four are men.

Fourthly, there are barriers to senior political leadership. Women comprise 30 percent of cabinet members overall – but many of these are in councils where there already is a woman leader. Nine councils still have all-male cabinets. Just one in seven Finance or Economic Development roles (which, rightly or wrongly are often regarded as a typical route to the Leader role) are held by women.

It is not an entirely negative picture of course. The national picture masks plenty of examples of good practice where individual authorities have made significant progress in achieving a more representative council. There are many inspiring female councillors and leaders who offer fantastic role-models for other women entering politics.

Drawing on existing work and evidence from many sources including interviews with some of these leaders, this report makes a wide range of recommendations. Just a few of them include:

  • Targets for women’s political representation
  • Maternity, paternity and parental leave entitlements for councillors
  • Legalising remote attendance at council meetings, including voting rights
  • More powerful Standards Committees and clearer standards and training
  • Term limits for councillors
  • Requirements for gender balanced Cabinets and formal shadowing opportunities through the creation of ‘deputy Cabinet Member’ roles

Our next challenge is to help share best practice and help authorities to build better pathways into politics for local women. We will be looking to work with the Fawcett Society to set up regional networks to promote what works and share good ideas. Watch this space.

There are many reasons to celebrate next year’s centenary. We hope that this report will help us to keep the issue of women in politics firmly on the agenda and support councils to achieve a more representative political gender balance. They will be the richer for it.

Lauren Lucas is Head of Projects at LGiU.

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    1. Amanda Bowles says:

      Interesting piece and report. Thanks.

      I think its a mistake to focus too much on equality in terms of numbers.. “only 17% of council leaders are women” – I’m tempted to ask ‘so what?’. What matters more is that everyone has an equal opportunity to serve as politicians – if they want to, and are able to, and, crucially, if they have the capability. A 50/50 balance of women/men isn’t equality if women receive additional support to get there. There would be no point having 50% of women in politics just to make up the numbers if they are no good!

      There are clearly occasions when discrimination happens and these should be tackled precisely when and where they occur, even if this is politically or culturally uncomfortable in the organisation, rather than taking a broad brush approach to everyone, and just hoping that sexists get the message.

      In terms of councillors receiving sexist comments that’s too vague a statement – what one person interprets as sexism someone else could easily see as humour, or it could just be general bullying that happens to be aimed at a woman. There is certainly bullying at all levels of politics – tackle the bullies. At the same time some women are a bit humourless and uptight in a male environment and might need to just lighten up a bit.

      I really don’t believe that sexism is commonplace in local government. I’ve seen sexism massively decline to the point where I’m not actually worried about in general terms any more. It should be tackled at source if it happens. In my 30 years experience enforced political correctness is more commonplace now in local government than sexism.

      1. Lauren Lucas says:

        Thanks for your comments Amanda – we really appreciate you taking the time to read the report and respond. In response to a few of your points…

        “I think its a mistake to focus too much on equality in terms of numbers.. “only 17% of council leaders are women” – I’m tempted to ask ‘so what?” I guess there is a fundamental point here that councils are public bodies – should we not be aiming for them to represent the communities they serve at a senior political level? When three-quarters of council staff are women it also raises questions about why they are so under-represented in politics – and it seems to me to be legitimate to ask those questions.

        “A 50/50 balance of women/men isn’t equality if women receive additional support to get there. There would be no point having 50% of women in politics just to make up the numbers if they are no good!” I think this would be fair if we could be confident that we have an absolutely level playing field for people getting into local politics – can we be that confident though? In the main, I think I would say that men already have all sorts of structural advantages to women when it comes to getting into politics, so I would see extra support for women as really about levelling that playing field. Do we really think that we don’t have enough good women in our communities to make up 50% of political posts?

        “What one person interprets as sexism someone else could easily see as humour, or it could just be general bullying that happens to be aimed at a woman.” Sure – but if we’re looking into why there are fewer women in senior political office at a local level and nearly 40 per cent of female councillors in our survey say they have ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ experienced sexism from other councillors, I think it’s clearly something that has to be taken fairly seriously. Of course, perhaps it’s not an issue in your authority (and I absolutely agree that looking at the sector as a whole does tend to mask differences), but it came through very strongly as a problem in many others, both from the survey we took and also more anecdotally in oral and written evidence from councillors of all political persuasions.

        It’s really great to hear that you have such a good experience in your local authority and we’re always collecting examples of good practice to share elsewhere, so if you have anything you want to highlight here, please do let us know!