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We need more women leaders in local government

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

Cllr Gillian Keegan, director of Women2Win, explains why she is co-chairing a commission into women’s representation in local government and how people can get involved.

The Fawcett Society and LGiU have launched a one-year commission supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust to examine the role of women across local government and identify barriers to women’s representation. 

We are undergoing a period of great change in the way power is held, public money is spent and public services are delivered. However, we haven’t seen any change in women’s representation in local government for many years – just over 30% of councillors are women, and this has remained roughly unchanged for a decade.  

As we enter an era of devolution it is vitally important that decision-making in local government is fully representative of local communities, particularly when difficult trade-offs are required to balance budgets. Devolution can offer real opportunity for local politicians to use their insights, knowledge and relationships to solve local problems and focus on regional growth. That’s why, along with Dame Margaret Hodge MP, I’m chairing the commission, to make sure that women are at the table where critical decisions are made, not only as councillors but also as leaders in local government. 

Recent research by the Fawcett Society has found that whilst 40% of councillors in the Northern Powerhouse region are women, only 21% of leaders and directly elected mayors in the region are. Surprisingly, of the 134 senior leadership roles in the Northern Powerhouse, 96 (or 72%) of these are occupied by men. The deals underpinning devolution come with a commitment to regional elected mayors – but so far only four of the 16 existing directly elected mayors in England and Wales are women. 

Understanding why women are underrepresented 

We need to understand why women are underrepresented at all levels of local government in order to take steps to correct the balance. The position is similar among officers employed by local authorities – three-quarters of local government jobs are held by women, but only 24% of local authority chief executives are women. 

We are really interested to understand the barriers to increasing women’s representation. Are women less likely to come forward as candidates? Are enough women aware of the role and how they can get involved? Once they do decide to stand are they less likely to be selected by their local parties? What are the experiences of new women councillors? Who is more likely to stand again? What kind of responsibilities do women councillors take on? What puts them off or makes them give up? What are the barriers that stop women councillors rising to the top? What will it take to achieve 50:50 representation of women in local government leadership? 

The commission aims to take a granular and nuanced look at these questions and will seek to understand the representation of BAME women, women with disabilities and women with caring responsibilities rather than just women as an overall group. 

During the year we will have the opportunity to identify best practice in ensuring diversity and inclusivity at all levels. We will also identify and profile strong role models to build awareness of those women who are successful local government leaders today. 

The Local Government Commission will start by gathering the existing evidence and data, which will give a clear picture of how women are represented in positions at all levels in local government today. Following on from this we will hold evidence sessions across the country, conduct two online surveys, gather written evidence submissions and conduct qualitative interviews with women council leaders. 

We will then make recommendations on how we can advance women’s representation, engagement and leadership in local government. We would like to encourage as many people as possible to get involved and help make this a successful campaign for women in local government. If you are reading this article and wondering how to get involved, please go to: 

The commission will focus on local government in England and Wales. The terms of reference were drawn up by representatives from local government, equality campaigners, trade unions and politicians. The commission will produce a report outlining its findings by May 2017.

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