Female representation in local government – just a bit of fun?

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The two most powerful women in the United Kingdom met this week to discuss for one last time their respective views ahead of the Prime Minister’s triggering of Article 50 on Wednesday 29 April 2017.  Prime Minister Theresa May and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s meeting gained widespread coverage, not for the detail of the discourse but for one paper’s narrative on their legs.

In the absence of qualified journalism from the tabloid in question, it is perhaps worth remembering the very real and difficult decisions our Prime Minister has been leading on in the same week as Legs-it:

  • Chaired COBRA in response to Westminster’s terrorist attack. A horrific event that the Prime Minister herself was caught up in, escaping by car some 100 yards from the tragedy that was unfolding in the grounds of the Parliamentary Estate.
  • Negotiating the country through one of the most historic moments of our time as we begin the formal process of exiting the European Union
  • Fighting on the home front, trying to keep a United Kingdom together in the wake of the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland’s Choice vote for the right to hold a second independence referendum.

And yet instead of picking up on any of those significant events, the conversation was momentarily reduced to a simple question of objectification, a comparison between one women and another, which of our country’s most powerful women has the better pair of pins?

While our Prime Minister brushed off the headline as just a bit of fun, spare a thought for the thousands of women, who are still gaining their confidence and expertise, who are seeking mentors and role models, who follow activities in the political arena and are being put off from entering politics, construction, engineering and property development by this level of everyday sexism, despite school programmes and youth group efforts to inspire them to aim for the most famous address in the country.

In local government, the pipeline of future female leaders looks, quite frankly, rather grim. Latest figures (from 2013 which in itself says something) reveal only 12% of council leaders and 13% of elected mayors in England are female. Data on local councillors is hard to come by. In the period between 1997 and 2013, we know that over those last 16 years, female representation within local government increased by just 4% to 32%.

On the plus side, local government representation outperforms Westminster where only 29% of MPs are women but when judging against other areas such as the Senior Civil Service, NHS Consultants, the Cabinet, FTSE 100 directors, MSPs and GPs, female representation in local government is at the bottom of the pile. Regardless of other industries however, politics by its very nature, should be taking the lead and setting an example for the kind of society we want to be a part of.

In the North, local government is setting a precedent and in Leeds, Hull and North Tyneside, councils have achieved near 50:50 representation. In the Northern Powerhouse, 40% of councillors are women but of the 134 senior leadership roles, men occupy 72% of them. Women make up only 28% of the leadership roles in the combined authorities, the concept designed to reinvigorate local democracy and accountability.

As local authorities gain further devolved powers, devolution debates often focus on hard infrastructure like transport and property. In one all male panel discussion at the UK Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester, I witnessed a distinct lack of discussion about soft infrastructure, about governance, skills, capacity building and diversity in representation. Topics which were all raised in separate follow up discussions I had with Northern Power Women’s Simone Roche and Wigan Council’s CEO Donna Hall. Two female leaders who champion diversity in local government and support the People’s Powerhouse Conference taking place on 9 May in Doncaster, created in response to the way in which the North was represented at the UK Northern Powerhouse Conference in February.

At Cratus, we have a strong and ambitious all-female strategic team and we seek out opportunities to champion greater diversity in local government. We have answered the call for evidence from the Fawcett Society who are seeking responses from anyone with a view on women in local government. We also eagerly await the Commission on Women in Local Government’s findings on tackling gender bias in local government this summer.

However, there is still a gaping hole within the local government forum. Too frequently, conference panels and speaking events have zero local government elected member representation. Cratus seeks to bridge that gap. We have created a space for debate within our local government network. As we gear up for this summer’s conference season, Cratus Strategic is meeting with public and private sector leaders and local councillors on an almost weekly basis and will be working within our network to bring forward a forum for frank and honest local government discussion in the summer of 2017. If you would like to be part of this unique and engaging programme, please get in touch: [email protected]

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