By Jason Lowther, Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), University of Birmingham
Published on INLOGOV Blog
Local councils can and must do more to enable women to be councillors. Haringey’s new cabinet shows that this can be done, but fifty years after all government elected officials across the UK were finally elected under universal suffrage, new research shows barely a third of local councillors and MPs are women, whereas earlier research showed less than a quarter of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) candidates were women. This matters not only in terms of democratic fairness, but because politicians’ characteristics impact on public policy.
The research published last week by the Fawcett Society and Democracy Club reflects councillor representation in August 2022 across the UK. To collect the data, they had to scrape individual council websites since (incredibly) there is no official record of councillors’ gender (or other protected characteristics). This is because the relevant section of the Equality Act 2010 has still not yet been enacted and in any case as drafted would apply only to candidates in national elections. This is in contrast to council staff, where the Equality Act applies and has led most councils to capture and publish reasonably detailed assessments of workforce equality issues – as shown by the recent SOLACE / Shared Intelligence report, ‘Understanding and Improving Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Local Government Workforce’ which we discussed on the blog last autumn.
The Fawcett Society / Democracy Club results show no party yet has parity of representation between women and men, but some are doing much better than others. The highest proportion of women is found in the Labour Party (47%) and the lowest in the Conservative Party (29%), the SDLP, DUP, and Ulster Unionist Parties.
At individual council level, the highest proportions of women councillors were found in Haringey (65%), Rossendale (61%), Brighton and Hove (56%), Lewisham (56%), and Southwark (56%). In contrast, Perth and Kinross, Pendle, Comhairle nan Eileen Siar and West Berkshire each have 15% or less of the council made up of women councillors.
One effect of having fewer women decision makers may be that issues that disproportionately affect women are given insufficient attention. Policymakers play key roles in promoting status-based policies.
Recent research by Professor Francesca Gains (University of Manchester) and Professor Vivien Lowndes (Inlogov) published in the journal Politics & Gender in 2021 analysed the effect of Police and Crime Commissioner’s gender on policymaking around violence against women and girls (VAWG). An earlier quantitative phase of their research found that policy prioritisation was linked to Police and Crime Commissioners’ own gender, with female PCCs twice as likely to prioritize VAWG. Their later research analysed how this difference occurred, identifying ‘seven sets of rules that have shaped policy prioritization in favour of VAWG: the right to make key appointments; the requirement to set policy priorities; the obligation to utilize equalities duties; the power to commit resources; the expectation of partnership working with other agencies; the commitment to hold operational police officers to account; and the maintenance of diverse channels of contact with victims of crime and the wider public’ (Gains and Lowndes, 2022, p. 396).
To improve the situation, the Fawcett Society / Democracy Club report makes recommendations to government, political parties and local councils. For councils, the key actions are:
- implement parental leave policies, to make being a councillor more accessible to those with caring responsibilities;
- ensure that caring and dependency allowances reflect the real cost of childcare and are accounted for separately from ‘main’ members’ allowance;
- pilot alternative ways of working including online and hybrid engagement mechanisms to enable councillors with caring responsibilities to carry out their duties more effectively; and
- adopt codes of conduct, based on the model developed by the LGA in 2020
Local councils can only be truly effective when they represent the communities they serve. The Fawcett Society report is a timely reminder that we have a long way to go, but the first steps are clear and practical.
Gains, F. and Lowndes, V. (2022) ‘Identifying the institutional micro-foundations of gender policy change: A case study of police governance and violence against women and girls’, Politics & Gender, 18(2), pp. 394-421.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.