We won’t see gender equality in local councils until 2077 – new data shows

Only 35% of councillors across England are women - despite May’s bumper election

Data released today by leading gender equality campaigning charity, the Fawcett Society, shows that just 34% of the 4,980 councillors elected in May were women. This means that, at this rate of change, we won’t see gender parity in local councils until 2077 – over 50 years away. Across England women make up just 35% of the total number of councillors – less than a 1% increase since the 2019 elections.

Whilst progress in improving women’s representation in local government is glacial, there has been an increase in the number of councils that have maternity or paternity policies in place, which Fawcett has been campaigning for. However, it is shocking that data obtained by Fawcett through Freedom of Information requests shows that around three quarters of local councils still don’t have maternity or paternity policies in place for their councillors.

  • Only 24% of councils have a maternity or paternity policy in place for their ‘ordinary’ councillors. In 2019 just 7% had these policies in place.
  • Only 25% of councils have a maternity or paternity policy in place for their senior cabinet-level councillors. In 2019 just 8% had these policies in place.

Local government has a powerful impact on all our lives and it is essential that it works for women as well as men. We know that having women involved in policy conversations, and in decision-making positions, makes a difference to whether issues which have a disproportionate impact on women are discussed. Councils spend £106bn of taxpayers’ money each year; they employ over 1.3 million people, 75% of whom are women. The services they provide determine the support we receive from our first years to our dying days; and women are more dependent on those services. In addition, research has shown that where local Police and Crime Commissioners are women, violence against women and girls is 1.7 times more likely to be identified as a policy priority.

Felicia Willow, Fawcett Society Interim Chief Executive, said:

This was a bumper year for new councillors – but the data shows that sadly we have more of the same. Almost all councils are dominated by men. The pace of change in local government is far too slow.

During the pandemic we saw how significantly councils matter for women, whether that’s the care packages for disabled  women that were disrupted or the children’s centres for new mothers that suffered closures.

In light of this stagnation, political parties which are failing to make progress need to urgently set out their action plans for a change of course. Councils are making some headway with policies – now we need to see action from the parties.

 Democracy Club Co-ordinator Sym Roe said:

Information about elections and candidates should be easily accessible to everyone, from voters to charities who care about our political system. We are glad to have been able to work with Fawcett to create better data about the kind of democracy we live in.

Key findings: By Party

  • The Conservative Party won the most seats but also has the lowest levels of women’s representation, with just 25% women councillors among those elected this year. This is a decrease of 5 percentage points from 2019, although different councils were elected that year.
  • Labour has very nearly achieved equality with 49% women among their councillors elected in 2021.
  • The Green Party is also close to achieving equality at 43%, however this figure remains unchanged from 2019.
  • The Liberal Democrats’ performance decreased very slightly from 2019, with 33% women councillors
  • The percentage of Independent women councillors increased to 31%.

Key findings: By Council

  • In ascending order, the ten worst councils for women’s representation following the May 2021 elections are: Craven (10%), West Berkshire (14%), Swale (15%), Ashfield (17%), Hambleton (18%), Cherwell (19%), Castle Point (20%), Huntingdonshire (20%), Essex County Council (20%), and Wycombe (20%). In these councils, less than one in five councillors is a woman.
  • The worst councils for women’s representation across the different regions of England are: Craven, Yorkshire (10%), West Berkshire, South East (14%), Ashfield, East Midlands (17%), Huntingdonshire, East of England (20%), Tamworth, West Midlands (20%), Mid Devon, South West (24%), Cumbria, North West (27%), Havering, London (30%), and Hartlepool, North East (31%).
  • 41 councils achieved, or were very close to achieving, equality, with women’s representation at 45% and over. Nottingham (55%), Cambridge (55%), Islington (55%), and Brighton and Hove (56%) had the greatest representation of women.
  • Since the last local elections, Adur had the biggest increase in women’s representation, with an increase from 2019 to 2021 of 21 percentage points. Cambridge had the second biggest increase in women’s representation, with an increase of 17 percentage points.

Fawcett Society is calling for:

  • The Government to require parties to collect comprehensive, accurate election candidate diversity data, to enable a better understanding of how women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBTQIA+ people are represented, by implementing section 106 of the Equality Act.
  • The Government to make remote meetings legal for all councils in order to support women with caring responsibilities, as they were during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Local councils to implement maternity and paternity policies by using the Local Government Association’s toolkit, to make being a councillor more accessible to women.
  • Parties to set out targets for increasing women’s representation, and a clear action plan to achieve them.

Click here for the full data on women's representation

Click here for the full FOI data on maternity leave policies

Click here for the full press release