14 July 2017
By Sam Smethers, Chief Executive at The Fawcett Society

“I just announced I would be a council candidate, then the abuse started.” “They told me if I got pregnant I would have to stand down.” “I was told by my own council colleagues to run away little girl and let the grown-ups do their job.” I could go on but you get the picture. This is what woman after woman, from across all political parties, had to say to us during our year-long Commission asking the question “Does local government work for women?”

When we started this project I expected to find sexism and gender stereotypes, a lack of flexibility and an out-dated culture. I wasn’t proved wrong. But what we have found is much worse than I expected. Despite the fact that 78% of council employees are women and they are also the majority of services users, just 33% of councillors are women, statistics that have barely shifted in decades. But in addition to that we found that one in three women councillors have experienced sexism from council colleagues, one in 10 have been sexually harassed. 46% of women vs 35% of men had experienced harassment or abuse from the electorate.

Women councillors said they were deterred from claiming childcare expenses for fear of criticism. The timing of council meetings is inflexible and it’s not possible to attend remotely so for those with caring responsibilities it can be a real challenge to participate. Just 4%, yes FOUR PERCENT, that is 12 councils in England have a maternity, paternity or parental leave policy for councillors. It’s as if they just haven’t encountered women of child-bearing age before. Some councillors were told they would have to stand down, or feared they would be disciplined for missing council meetings after they had recently had a baby.

Disabled women faced additional barriers with half saying they experienced multiple discrimination, undermining their ability to fulfil their democratic role and leading to criticism from colleagues of their performance when in practice they were being excluded. BAME women are significantly under-represented and also talked about the racism and sexism they experience. One woman said she would not stand again because of it. Muslim women spoke about the ‘extreme barriers’ they experience from men within their own community and their own party.

When it comes to senior positions we see six in seven cabinet finance or economic development roles go to men. These are the roles that lead to the top. So it’s not surprising that just 17% of council leaders are women. But where women are leading they are more likely to promote other women, with 40% of cabinet roles going to women in those councils vs 30% overall.

So what needs to change? As a first step we need to collect basic monitoring data. This isn’t done at the moment, which makes it very difficult to improve diversity. We need a step change on women’s representation - the Commission has called for targets and legislation to enforce them if we don’t achieve them. It’s time for gender-balanced leadership with 50% of cabinet roles and committee chairs to be held by women. For those with caring responsibilities we need allowances they can claim without fear of criticism and yes we need basic maternity, paternity and parental leave policies (this already exists in Wales, it’s not hard!). Remote attendance should be possible - despite the fact that it isn’t 1950 and technology makes this very straight forward, currently it’s actually illegal. And we have to take proactive steps to enable disabled councillors fully to participate and to both recruit and promote BAME women. Finally, we need standards committees with the power to deal with the bullying, sexism and harassment that far too many women councillors are experiencing from their own council colleagues or within their own party.

Our local councils spend £94 billion of our money. In many town halls what we have today can only be described as an out-dated culture which is holding local government back. Yet despite all of this what we also found many positive stories. Women who were pleasantly surprised by the difference they could make; who were committed to serving their local communities and who were not seeking anything other than to make a difference to people’s lives; women who would stick at it despite the abuse and harassment they experience. Because of those women I have concluded this Commission with more respect for local government than when I started it. Those who gave evidence did so generously and honestly, without making party-political points. They were all unified in their desire to make local government work for women. Given that overwhelmingly it’s women who rely on and deliver those services, it’s about time it did.

Read the full report here.

Sam Smethers, CE of FawcettAbout author

Sam is the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society.