England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, Welfare and equalities

International Women’s Day 2017: Why are only 12% of council leaders women?


International Women’s Day is upon us, and what better time to reflect on our progress in local government? We look at how local government shapes up against other parts of politics and the wider professional sector.

I’m a great believer in perspective. And when talking about gender equality, it’s often easy in our impatience for change to forget the fact that women have actually made great strides over the last century. We have the vote. Married women are a common sight in the workplace. Maternity rights are entrenched in law and parents have the option of sharing maternity and paternity leave. Feminism and gender parity are firmly in our common parlance, and issues affecting women are regularly addressed in policy. Female heads of state, female CEOs, female MPs and female entrepreneurs are now a relatively common sight.

Personally, I think that’s worth celebrating.

Having starting with the positive, let’s zoom in on local government, where things aren’t looking so great. As of 2013 (the latest figures available) only 12% of council leaders and 13% of executive mayors in England were women.

As we’ve been working on the Women in Local Government Commission with the Fawcett Society over the past year, these figures didn’t really surprise me. Through the evidence sessions hearing from officers and councillors, and our survey looking at councillors’ experiences in office, we’ve heard some pretty disheartening stories (findings to be released in April – sign up to updates on our Democracy theme).

But it was when I compared these figures with how women are doing in other sectors (recently released by the House of Commons Library) that I realised how alarmingly behind local government really is.

30% of English MPs, 35% of MSPs, 28% of NI Assembly Members and 42% of Welsh Assembly Members are women. Compared with local government council leaders and executive mayors (also usually full-time and paid political roles) things are much better in Westminster and the devolved regions. In Westminster and the NI Assembly things have been rapidly improving over the last 20 years, and in Wales and Scotland things the proportion of women started off quite high at the outset. Meanwhile progress in local government has stagnated.*

There has been a lot of discussion around women’s representation in the upcoming mayoral elections for the new devolved regions. Neither the Labour nor Conservative parties had put up a single female candidate for these elections (unlike the Liberal Democrats), effectively eliminating the possibility of any women holding these new roles with concentrated power. After receiving a lot of flack, Labour have now put up two female candidates. The negotiations that led to the creation of these roles have been criticised for happening behind closed doors in a room full of men. In this context, there are legitimate concerns that these new structures will only serve to entrench the existing problems that have led to such poor representation up to this point. In the conversations about devolution, the issue of governance structures, accountability and representation (gender and otherwise) have not been adequately addressed in my view.

How is it that local government has been left so far behind? It’s a big difference which demands investigation.

Of course, there are women councillors, leaders and mayors across the country already doing fantastic work and we should be looking to them for inspiration and ideas about how to improve the situation. An excellent example of this is the People’s Powerhouse event, arranged in protest at the privately-arranged Northern Powerhouse conference having an all-white all-male panel (read Donna Hall’s blog about it). It’s easy for responsibility for this issue to be shifted around, as it doesn’t rest neatly within anyone’s backyard. So we must ensure that pressure is maintained on political parties, current and future councillors, elected mayors, MPs, central government and others to address the gap through every stage of the process – selection, election, fulfilling the role and progressing.

Women must stand for office and they must seek senior roles. If you know a woman who’d make a brilliant councillor – or MP – let her know. Send her a Parliament Project postcard and ask her to stand.

International Women’s Day 2017

#IWD2017    #BeBoldForChange

The findings and recommendations from the Women in Local Government Commission will be released over the next few months so keep an eye out. For the results of our survey looking at the situation in Scotland, read Charlotte Maddix’s excellent article over on LGiU Scotland.

*This is hard to say for certain because data on local councillors is so poor, particularly on leadership roles. I’ve used the % of all councillors as a proxy, which moved from 28% women in 1997 to 32% in 2013.