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Andrew Bazeley,  Policy and Insight Manager at Fawcett Society, updates us on the progress of the ‘Does Local Government Work for Women?’ Commission

This International Women’s Day falls in the centenary year of (some) women first getting the vote in general elections. But for decades before women had been both voting and even standing in local government elections, although sporadically, usually on the basis that they were the heads of wealthier households and as a result council ratepayers. The sister of Fawcett’s founder Millicent, the trailblazing doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was elected Mayor of Aldeburgh ten years before the 1918 law that recognised women’s right to the Parliamentary vote.

Despite that longer history of women’s voting rights, when it comes to women’s representation at local level the pace of change has been inexcusably slow – in fact Parliament has now caught up. We are at just a third women on our councils, and 32% in Westminster.

Supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, up to summer 2017, Fawcett and the LGiU ran a year-long commission to ask the question: “Does Local Government Work for Women?” Our answer was often an emphatic “no”. With just 4% of councils having a maternity policy for councillors; with sexist comments directed at 4 in 10 councillors by others within their party, and sexual harassment received by 10%; and with too little done to tackle a male-dominated working culture, it is clear things need to change.

Since the report was launched, we’ve made some steps towards altering this picture, and we’re carrying on our campaigning work on this. The parties are taking heed; councils from Wigan and Stockport to North Buckinghamshire have passed motions about the report and are taking action; and we are in discussions with the Government about what they can do to shift the structures that keep women out. Barrow Cadbury Trust’s support has enabled us to push sexism in our town halls up the agenda.

One of the most shocking findings of the Commission was that 94% of those holding a seat at the table of the new Combined Authorities were men. These are effectively the “cabinet” role for the new city regions across the country, from Greater Manchester to the Tees Valley – and in six of those regions they report to one of the entirely-male “metro mayors”.

These are brand new structures – and so it is shocking that no thought has been given to the gender makeup they would have when introduced. But while we continue to campaign for that to change, we can’t wait. We need women’s voices to be heard in the important policy discussions those Combined Authorities are having right now.

That’s why, supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust and by the Smallwood Trust, we are working with regional partners in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to campaign for that to happen. We are bringing together diverse women in workshops over the next two months to hear what matters to them, to reflect on our research findings, and to campaign together for policy change. We want to show that there is another way for these new structures to ensure that they hear women’s voices and make decisions that reflect the impact that gender has on their lives. Find out more.

Discrimination is commonplace in local government with almost four in ten women councillors having experienced sexist comments from within their own party, according to a report released by The Fawcett Society 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 their capabilities because they are women. And one in ten have, according to the report, 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. This will make recommendations on how to address the key issues faced by women councillors and the barriers to women’s representation in local government.

The Commission today, is 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 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.

The remit of Fawcett’s year-long Commission of experts has been to:

• Gather and publish evidence on female participation and representation across local government and identify the barriers to women’s representation.

• Make recommendations on how to advance women’s leadership in local government and establish a pipeline for power, including positive steps to support and inspire women to stand for elected office.

• Demonstrate the impact of decision-making at the local level for women’s lives.

• Reinvigorate the role of women in local government and encourage more women to stand and participate.

Read the full report.
Read the executive summary