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Local Government Not Gender Fit

04 August 2017 | Updated 01 January 1970

The Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission includes the shocking finding that just 4% of local councils in England have a formal maternity, paternity or parental leave policy in place for councillors.

A hard-hitting new report concludes that local government is ‘not fit for the future’ as a result of a range of outdated practices and attitudes that hold back gender equality.  The final report of the Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission includes the shocking finding that just 4% 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 who responded to a Freedom of Information request said that they had nothing on offer for women councillors who get pregnant.

This report is the result of a year-long study led by the Fawcett Society in partnership with the Local Government Information Unit, which asked ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’ and contains recommendations to help solve the issues faced by women in town halls.

The report also reveals that women are outnumbered six to one in Finance or Economic Development roles, which usually lead to the top.  This helps to explain why just 17% of council leaders are women – a figure that has hardly shifted for ten years.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society 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 21st century.”

Just one in three local councillors is a woman, and the pace of change is slow, going up by just 5% points since 1997. In county councils, which went to the polls this May, 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% of Combined Authority representatives are women.

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


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% 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.
  • Women make up just 33% of council chief executives, the head of their non-political staff, yet 78% 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.

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.”

Lauren Lucas, Head of Projects, 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% 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."


Key recommendations include:

  • 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 & 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 percent 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 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, and Government to reopen the Access to Elected Office fund to support disabled women councillors, and Government to take positive steps to get more BAME women in.
  • Parties and councils to adopt a requirement for at least 50 percent 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.
  • Equal representation across devolution’s Combined Authorities – women should be equally represented at the top table.

Picture: More women are needed in council roles from Councillors to office managers


Article written by Cathryn Ellis | Published 04 August 2017


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