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Women in local government report out


Fawcett Society, Local Government, report, women councillors, discriminationSexism and multiple discrimination commonplace in local government.

A range of outdated practices and attitudes hold back gender equality in local government, according to a new report.

This report, by the Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission, is the result of a year-long study led by the Fawcett Society in partnership with the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU).

It asked ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’ and contains recommendations to help solve the issues faced by women in town halls.

And it includes the shocking finding that only 4 per cent of local councils in England have a formal maternity, paternity or parental leave policy in place for councillors.

Some have informal arrangements, but three quarters of those who responded to a Freedom of Information request said that they had nothing on offer for women councillors who get pregnant.

The report also reveals that women are outnumbered six to one in Finance or Economic Development roles, which usually lead to the top in terms of council leadership.

This helps to explain why only 17 per cent of council leaders are women – a figure that has barely shifted for ten years.

Remarking on this, Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society’s Chief Executive, said: “Local government is increasingly important for all our lives, but particularly for women.  Yet significant barriers remain preventing their participation. This was the picture across all political parties.

“But many of the changes that are needed, such as a maternity policy for councillors, are relatively easy to introduce.

“As we get ready to mark next year’s centenary of women’s votes and the first women MPs to be elected we have to ask ourselves how we have managed to create new devolved institutions that are even more male dominated than local authorities.

“We are going backwards and that is fundamentally unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Only one in three local councillors is a woman, and the pace of change is slow: it has gone up by just 5 per cent points since 1997. In county councils, which went to the polls this May, it looks like it will take until 2065 to reach equality.

In the new devolved Combined Authorities the picture is even worse. All 6 elected metro mayors are men and just 12 per cent of Combined Authority representatives are women.

Other key findings:

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. This creates additional barriers for women, particularly those with caring responsibilities;

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;

Half of disabled women and many BAME women councillors face multiple discrimination;

80 per cent of council seats go to incumbents at each election, making it very difficult for women and minority groups to break through. Of those councillors serving for 20 years or more, 3 in 4 are men; and

Women make up just 33 per cent of council chief executives, the head of their non-political staff, yet 78 per cent of council employees are women. A lack of flexibility in senior roles is partly to blame.

The report makes a number of recommendations to the government, political parties and local councils which would drive change.

To get more women in to the roles, the Commission calls for all parties to for the first time set targets for getting more women councillors in, and make it a legal requirement to get 45 percent women candidates if they don’t make progress.

Key recommendations include:

The government to introduce a statutory England-wide maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave policy for councillors, and ensure childcare and caring costs are covered;

Legalise remote attendance at council meetings and use technology to support inclusion;

Collect and report diversity monitoring data – enact and amend Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to collect data on the make-up of local council candidates and councillors;

Set targets, make progress, or legislate – Each political party must outline realistic but ambitious targets for increasing women’s representation at each year’s round of local elections, with a clear action plan for achieving those targets, and if they have not made significant progress against this plan to increase women’s representation in local government by the next general election, they must commit to early legislation to implement a time-limited requirement for at least 45 per cent of local government candidates to be women;

Encourage more women to stand – Local Government Association’s ‘Be a councillor’ to focus on women’s representation in suffrage centenary year 2018, and political parties and councils to reach out into the community;

Codes of conduct to address sexism and discrimination, with formal standards committees to be established with a process to make complaints, and able to suspend and then deselect councillors who sexually harass;

Councils to introduce reasonable adjustments policies, the government to reopen the Access to Elected Office fund to support disabled women councillors, and the government to take positive steps to get more BAME women in;

Political parties and councils to adopt a requirement for at least 50 per cent of cabinet members and chairs of committees to be women;

Councils to offer all roles, including senior roles, as flexible working and part-time by default, unless there is a clear business case otherwise; and

Equal representation throughout devolution’s Combined Authorities – women should be equally represented at the top table.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, co-chair of the Commission, said: “I led a Council 25 years ago and I have been shocked during the course of this review to find how little has changed and how few improvements have been made towards equality in local government.

“The way councils do business is still designed by, and for, men. This needs to change, and fast.

“Currently local government is not fit for purpose and does not work for women.”

And Lauren Lucas, Head of Projects, at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) said: “Councils should represent their local communities.

“Local authorities employ a staff that is three-quarters female and deliver services which have a major impact on women’s lives.

“So when only 17 per cent of their elected leaders are women, it’s clear that there are important questions to be asked.

“Local government has a long way to go before women are represented equally at a political level, but there are already examples of good practice out there and by working together we will meet this challenge. Local government will be the richer for it.”

Gillian Keegan MP, co-chair of the Commission, said: “Being a councillor is so rewarding and offers a great opportunity to learn new skills. We need to get out there and sell the merits of the role to women across the country.

“However, if we want them to take an interest, we have to make the role more flexible and promote the use of technology.”

To see the full report, click here

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