21 August 2017
By Caroline Gillett, Fawcett Society member and women's rights activist

On the 13th July 2017, I was checking my emails on my lunch break and came across one from the Fawcett Society. I opened it and began to read their summary of their report into the prevalence of sexism in local councils and, honestly, I was appalled. I had some prior knowledge of this issue via the excellent Everyday Sexism Project by Laura Bates but this report really struck home the important message that sexism is still rife amongst our workplaces and the halls of power have not escaped from it’s annoyingly pervasive grip.

Whilst I have experienced sexism throughout my adolescent and adult life, when out and about, in the street, from the media, and even from people I know, I have been fortunate enough to have never experienced sexism in my workplace. I work in clinical research in the NHS, and am studying for a Masters in Public Health, and am proud that I’ve had some excellent female role models in all my workplaces and in my studies. However, I am more than aware that this is not the case for all women and I felt the findings from this report acutely, especially as I have been considering getting more involved with local politics and activism.

So, I decided to take the advice of Fawcett and write to my local councillors, Richard Earle and Susan Ballard. I’ve written to local councillors and MPs before and sadly, this has mostly been quite an unfulfilling experience. A response, if I do receive one, is often quite stilted and lacking in any real detail. The feeling that you have been sent a minorly-edited ‘canned response’ is pretty horrible and as I clicked the ‘send’ button, I was already expecting just such a response to come through over the next couple of days.

I had been unduly negative as that very evening a response, a personal response, came through from Richard. I could sense that he felt this was an important issue and he suggested that we should meet up to discuss the issue properly. I was completely stunned but extremely pleased that I’d had such a meaningful suggestion and together we arranged a suitable time for us to meet in August.

After a tour of the Town Hall we settled into the coffee shop at Gosport Discovery Centre and discussed why I had got in touch with Richard in the first place - sexism. Richard communicated passionately about how he had not witnessed any instances of sexism in his time at the council (Richard has been a councillor for just over a year) but appreciated that his experience was minimal. He then went on to explain that he had spoken about my letter to his councillor colleagues, in particular the female ones, asking for their experiences over the years. Some of the women he spoke to had been councillors for a long time and their experiences were very interesting to me. Some had said that such things had gone on in the past but things were better now and that this had improved as there were more women around (Gosport Borough Council is about a third women). This last point really hit home- the more of us that are there, the more this behaviour can be discouraged  and exposed where it does take place.  

One of the most powerful parts of the Fawcett’s report was the personal anecdotes received from women in politics, across the political spectrum and all over the country. Richard expressed genuine disgust at the excerpts I shared with him and disbelief that such things still happen. When I talk to people who have not witnessed sexism with their own eyes, there is often disbelief. Not in that the accounts are somehow untrue or misrepresentations of the truth but in that we live in a world where such things still occur. I feel like discussing this issue with Richard has opened his eyes to what can take place, even if Gosport Borough Council appears to operate well.

My interest in local politics has been encouraged by this meeting and my next step is to go to my first town hall meeting and speak to more people about their experiences. This all began from a brief but heartfelt letter and I urge anyone out there who is interested in politics or feminism to get engaged with their local councillors and MPs. Feminism is a fight that smashes through party political boundaries; a feminist society is better for all of us. Often, you can feel quite small and insignificant in the world of campaigning but an email can lead to so much and we can all make a real difference. There is no room in our society for sexism!

Read more: how Gosport Council responded to our recommendations

Caroline discussed several recommendations from the Local Government Commission report with her local councillor. Here are the responses she received:

  • Open up senior roles to flexible working or part-time by default. Gosport Borough Council encourage councillors to balance their council duties with other jobs and family life as much as possible. Attendance in person at town council meetings is expected, and whilst suggestions of Skype and such are seen as a good idea, I would be surprised if that changed in the short term. Otherwise, a lot of the job can be done remotely and shared working can be considered. This feels like a new area of thought for Gosport and will hopefully grow in time.
  • Introduce maternity, paternity and parental leave entitlements for councillors across England. This is recognised as an issue, especially to attracting younger people to become councillors. Unfortunately not all councillors see this as an issue, but it does apparently get raised quite often. The Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors are very supportive, but are not the majority.
  • Tackle 'rude heckling and silly faux parliamentary behaviour' at council meetings. There is a little pomp at local meetings, but generally everyone gets down to business swiftly. Things can get heated (apparently at planning meetings) but remain courteous and respectful and certainly not sexist. The current Mayor is a woman; perhaps that has some bearing.

Read our Local Government Report here.

Take action yourself! Write to your local council to campaign for women's rights. Find out what you can do here.

About Author

Caroline Gillett is working in clinical research in the NHS, and is studying for a Masters in Public Health. She has been a member of The Fawcett Society since July.