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23.08.17

We must scrutinise gender in local government

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

Jennifer Glover, policy researcher at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), says gender representation is monitored in other sectors – so why not local government?

In other sectors, a harsh light is being shone on gender representation and concrete steps are being taken on a national and organisational level. The 2010 Davies Review of Women on Boards saw the beginning of a concerted effort on the part of government and industry to tackle the persistently low female representation on FTSE 100 boards – as a result, the proportion of women on boards has doubled in five years, from 12.5% in 2010 to 25% in 2015. This year, new government rules were introduced requiring all public and private sector organisations employing over 250 people to publish gender pay gap figures annually.

Local politics, however, has mostly escaped this scrutiny and avoided having targets or requirements placed upon it. Given that only 17% of council leaders in England are female, while women constitute 32% of MPs, 26% of the Cabinet, and 39% of public body boards, LGiU and the Fawcett Society decided to undertake a comprehensive year-long commission, asking ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’.

Chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge MP and Gillian Keegan MP, the commission heard from women in local government across the country through evidence sessions, open consultations, a survey of 2,400 councillors and Freedom of Information requests, and gained an unprecedented understanding of the types and scale of barriers facing women’s political participation. The final report and recommendations were released in July, calling for action from local and central government to address the situation.

The stories we heard were often quite shocking, both in terms of the hostile working environment – 33% of women councillors have experienced sexist comments from other councillors – and the antiquated practices that would be completely unacceptable in any other workplace – only 4% of councils have a formal maternity, paternity or adoption policy in place for councillors. Childcare and other caring costs are often inadequately reimbursed and many councillors with caring responsibilities, of which the majority are women, choose not to claim at all for fear of political backlash.

When faced with the stubbornly low numbers of women councillors and council leaders, and the findings of the commission, we cannot writeoff the gender disparity simply in terms of free choice. We must accept that there is something else at play. It is not good enough to say ‘it’s too difficult to find good women to stand’, or that ‘women just don’t want to be involved with local politics’. There are clear and demonstrable structural and cultural barriers that are putting women off standing and are making their lives difficult once they are in office.

Some of these barriers, although they affect women disproportionately, are indicative of a wider problem with diversity and inclusivity, which means that local government demographics have remained remarkably homogenous – 67% male, 96% white and with an average age of 60. These barriers include inflexible meeting times which make the role challenging for younger people and those in full-time employment, as well as carers. The inability to bring councillors to task over their conduct in any meaningful way means that racial and disability discrimination go unpunished. Political deal-making happening outside the council chamber also means that decisions become less transparent and harder for those unable to attend these informal meetings to dispute.

In a time in which public trust in politics is taking a tumble, we cannot be complacent when confronted with these facts. Local government which is not reflective of its citizens loses credibility, and an unwillingness to make the necessary changes compounds the suspicions of the electorate that their politicians are in it for themselves. We must begin this journey of change in earnest, and demonstrate that local government can be, and indeed already is, a powerful positive force when it puts its mind to it.

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