More than 3,000 female councillors needed to achieve LG gender parity

A lack of diversity in local government authorities has been starkly revealed today in a new study which found that only 33% of councillors and 17% of council leaders in England are currently women.

In combined authorities, the situation was found to be even worse: on the new boards only 4% of constituent members are women and all six are led by men.

The IPPR report, called: ‘Power to the people? Tackling the gender imbalance in combined authorities & local government’, also stated that achieving gender balance would require more than 3,000 female councillors to be elected – an increase of over 50%.

The authors of the report went on to argue that this lack of diversity and inclusion is creating a “democratic deficit” in England’s local authorities.

Local government and England’s combined authorities are even lagging behind central government in terms of creating diverse organisations: whilst the number of female MPs rose by 9% between 2015 and 2017, representation of female candidates in council ward elections has flatlined at around a third since 2007.

These findings follow a number of similar warnings from different think tanks, with the Electoral Reform Society describing combined authorities as an “old boys’ club” back in July.

“It cannot be right in 2017 that there are barely any women represented in the leadership of our newest democratic institutions, the combined authorities,” Clare McNeil, the IPPR’s associate director, commented.

Efforts made to address this in Greater Manchester and elsewhere are to be welcomed, but radical change is needed if devolution is to be about bringing power to the people, rather than consolidating it among white middle-aged men.”

The process of change in authorities was also found to be moving at a very slow pace. The IPPR concluded that if the current rate of change (of around 5 percentage points over 20 years) continues, it will take a whopping 68 years to reach the desired 50/50 representation.

This is even slower than the rate that the Fawcett Society predicted counties would be equal by, since it had expected gender balance to be achieved by around 2065.

“Political institutions and parties must introduce more ambitious quotas to improve representation in the short term,” McNeil continued. “Local government should do more to encourage women to stand and support them effectively once they have been selected. Without these measures representation will continue to be deeply unequal.”

To tackle the issue IPPR researchers floated a number of suggestions, including a commitment to achieve a 50/50 balance in male/female part membership to increase the number of potential female councillors, as well as the backing of a cross-party initiative to encourage an additional 12,000 women to come forward and stand in council elections.

It also called on local and combined authorities to voluntarily make a commitment that no gender be represented by less than 45% of representatives on combined authority boards – similarly to the commitment made in GM recently – as well as to appoint a deputy chair to CA boards and commit to the two top positions being filled by a man and a woman.

“Leaders of political parties should back our call to recruit the 12,000 women needed to stand for election to achieve a better gender balance in local government by 2025,” McNeil concluded. “This would be a fitting way to mark next year’s anniversary of 100 years since the first women got the vote.”

LGA: Change needed at a faster pace

Councils argued the report rightly highlighted that progress in reaching gender balance in local government should be made a faster pace.

“This report rightly highlights that progress in achieving gender balance in local government should be made at a faster pace,” Cllr Marianne Overton, vice chair of the LGA, stated. “All parts of local government must be reflective of the communities they represent and be at the forefront of driving the level of change required.

“However, as the report also highlights, change will only come about through a mix of support programmes and direct action from political parties to encourage and sustain aspiring female councillors.”

Cllr Overton added that the LGA’s ‘Be a Councillor’ campaign had a large focus on encouraging women and underrepresented groups to engage with and enter politics.

“We are currently expanding our programme to include female mentors and greater support for young women considering entering local government,” she explained. “The LGA is also supporting the Women’s Local Government Society’s project to celebrate the 2018 centenary of women getting the vote and aims to inspire a new generation of women councillors and civic activists.”

Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford Council and the only female boss of a combined authority nationally, also described the number of women represented in the local government sector as “depressingly small”.

“Representing a very diverse region, we in West Yorkshire are working hard to ensure that our combined authority is seen as a champion for diversity both within the region and nationally,” she said. “I am one of two female council leaders in the region alongside Cllr Judith Blake of Leeds, four of our six partner council chief executives are women and our combined authority leadership team has a 50/50 gender split.

“There is much more we can do however and I will be doing all I can – working with Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham, and other local and combined authority leaders nationally – to encourage more women to have the incredible opportunity and privilege to enter local politics and represent their community.”

Today’s report also follows PSE reporting from the People’s Powerhouse conference, an event shaped around inclusion, diversity and hope – you can read our review here.

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Robert   21/08/2017 at 12:02

People should be elected on the merits, not their gender. Anything else is discrimination. I am totally against "quotas". Election on merit, on who is best suited for the job. If this leads to all female or all male councils, then so be it.

Bernard   21/08/2017 at 12:29

My District has 75% female staff; female Leader & a CEO; all directors female; over half the Heads of Service female. Does this gender imbalance disadvantage male residents from council service provision or discriminate against male applicants? Not seen as an issue by the Head of HR, (female). Wonder what would be the case if the other way round? I trust merit and not gender is the key.

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