26 APRIL 2017

  • 38% report sexist comments from council colleagues, one-third in council chamber
  • 10% of female councillors have experienced sexual harassment

Sexism is commonplace in local government with almost four in ten female councillors having experienced sexist comments from within their own party, according to a report released today.

The survey of over 2,300 councillors also found that a third of women councillors have experienced sexist comments in the council chamber and 43% say they are held back by assumptions about what they can do just because they are women.

A shocking one in ten have experienced sexual harassment from other councillors.

The findings are part of the Local Government Commission – a year-long study led by the Fawcett Society in partnership with the Local Government Information Unit, which is asking ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’ The statistics released today are from the interim report, with a final report due in the summer.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, said:

“Women councillors from all major parties are reporting sexism and sexual harassment from within their own parties and from other councillors. This problem is not confined to one party, and is commonplace across local government.

“We are sadly used to hearing about the misogyny our politicians experience from the public via social media, but this research shows that they are also experiencing it from within their own parties, including their male council colleagues.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, co-chair of the Commission, comments:

“We are seeing a culture in some parts of local government which would not be out of place in the 1970s. This in turn is linked to the under-representation of women in local government where we have seen very little progress over the past 20 years.”

New data on women’s representation in local government

The Commission is today also publishing new data on women’s representation in local government. The picture is one of very slow progress. Only 33% of elected local councillors in England are women, an increase of just five percentage points since 1997. Yet over the same period, the proportion of women in Parliament has increased by more than half, from 18% to 29%. The number of women council leaders has barely changed either, up from 14% to 17% in 10 years.

The Commission finds that slow progress is exacerbated by many councillors remaining in office for significant periods of time. In 2016 men were 1.6 times more likely to be long term incumbent than women. Of those who have been in office for 20 years or more, there were three men for every one woman. Although some seats change hands at every election this is a relatively small number and is never enough to create real change in the gender composition of local elected members.

Cllr. Gillian Keegan, co chair of the Commission, said:

“Women’s under-representation combined with the slow turnover of male councillors is acting as a barrier to culture change. We also see women more likely to experience barriers such as lack of childcare, clashes with caring responsibilities and a lack of access to informal networks.

“As we now start to think about solutions we have to focus on how we remove some of these barriers to progress, such as through embracing new technology.”

Lauren Lucas, Head of Projects, Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), said:

“Women are not sufficiently represented in many council chambers across the country. Where they are, their involvement is, in many cases, discouraged. Despite decades of effort to advance women’s leadership across local government, this research shows that we have not made the progress we need.

“That is why the work of this Commission is so vital, looking at what can be done to support and encourage women to get involved in and stick with local government. A pipeline of women leaders across local government will ensure their voices are adequately represented at all levels.”

Other key findings from the report

  • Women were most underrepresented in the 18- 34s, where there were 3.5 times as many men as women. 35% of councillors are aged between 65 and 74 and in this age group there were two men for every woman
  • Women are most likely to be elected to their local council in the north east and least likely in the south east
  • 28% of women reported childcare as a barrier, compared with 18% of men.
  • 47% of women reported clashes with other caring commitments, almost double the proportion of men at 26%
  • 43% of women councillors experienced assumptions about what they could do based on their gender, compared with only 11% of men
  • But women councillors are not less ambitious, with 45% of women and 47% of men saying they want to progress to a more senior job in the council
  • 44% of Labour women councillors report experiencing sexist comments from within their own party compared to 33% of Conservative and 29% of Liberal Democrat women councillors
  • One third of women councillors said sexist comments from other councillors was sometimes or often a barrier to them fulfilling their role
  • 47 percent of women said that a lack of access to informal networks was a barrier to them as councillors, compared with 36 percent of men

Download the press release.
Download the report Executive Summary.
Download the full report here.

For more information, infographics or interviews, contact: 

[email protected]
0117 369 0025 

[email protected]
07876 378 733 

[email protected] 
07769 666 627

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The Local Government Commission’s final report will be published in the summer and will make recommendations on how to address the key issues faced by women councillors and the barriers to female representation in local government. It will draw on additional research to also look at women council officers and devolution. 

Read about the latest on our Local Government Report here.