Where are the women in local government?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 25th February 2013

At first glance, UK local government statistics aren’t exactly the most exciting topic for a blog. But they’re really important as they give us an insight into gender and politics in the UK today.

The Counting Women In coalition’s new report Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? confirms something we’ve known for a long time; women are grossly underrepresented in the tier of government responsible for crucial service delivery in local communities across Britain.

In 2013, local councils and town halls by no means reflect the communities they represent.

Women make up 51 per cent of the population in the UK.

The proportion of women councillors in the UK sits at just 32 per cent, with a glacial improvement of only 4.3 per cent between 2004 and 2013.

At the same time, the number of women in leadership roles in councils has been sliding backwards. Disturbingly, only 12.3 per cent of councils in the UK are led by women.

Women are slightly better represented when it comes to elected mayors (13.3 per cent), but this is just two of 15 individuals. So there’s plenty of room for improvement there.

Research on local government leadership conducted by the Centre for Women & Democracy published in 2011 found that women are also much less likely than men to hold key corporate (18 per cent), financial (7 per cent) and economic development (12 per cent) portfolios, which form the main channels into leadership roles.

So how do we improve women’s representation in local government? Two suggestions.

Firstly, political parties must dramatically improve their attitudes towards gender equality and the selection of candidates.

It will be difficult to increase women’s presence in local councils without political parties undertaking a wholesale change in attitude when it comes to the selection of women candidates in winnable spots.

Political parties need to get serious about supporting women running in council elections, not just for the duration of a selection process or campaign, but before, during and after their candidacy. Parties must foster and promote women as candidates by developing the internal structures to support this.

The report highlights the use of positive action measures until political parties themselves can start select women in equal numbers to men, which could be used as a means of changing ingrained cultural attitudes, and enforcing it for as long as it takes for gender equality to become the new normal.

This will make running for public office more appealing to women candidates – as parties will develop better candidate support and mentoring practices to fit with their positive action commitments.

Secondly, we need to modernise the way in which local government elections are run. First Past the Post (FPTP) is an antiquated, inequitable and unsatisfactory voting system that yields undemocratic results election after election. Making local government elections more democratic by introducing a more representative system like the Single Transferable Vote (STV) will help level the playing field for all candidates, and create space for new candidates to emerge. We have already seen STV in action in Scotland’s local government elections. Whilst not guaranteeing equal representation, more proportional electoral systems have greater potential to open up politics to allow for a greater diversity of candidates.

The upcoming council elections of 2013-14 present an ideal opportunity for the parties to show they are serious about gender equality. Now is exactly the right time for the parties to be counting women in.

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