Polly Trenow: Women needed in macho world of local politics

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THERE has been much furore about sexism in Westminster over the past year. From the Rennard scandal to David Cameron telling a female Shadow Minister to “calm down dear” during PMQs, the media has been shining a light on the treatment of women in parliament. Our research suggests, however, that sexism in local politics is just as prevalent as it is in national government, but that these stories rarely make it into the media.

Research by the Fawcett Society details incidents of sexism which have occurred in town halls across the country and from a range of parties. Several female councillors have publicly resigned this year, accusing their colleagues of sexism and bullying including Deal town clerk Lin Dykes who reported that she was told that male councillors would be “more comfortable” if she was a man and Basingstoke councillor Laura James who said her colleagues had “a problem with women”.

These incidents should be considered in light of the male dominance of local government. Just 32 per cent of councillors in England are women, a figure that has remained stagnant. As for council leaders, the figure has actually decreased from 16.6 per cent in 2004 to 12.3 per cent now. The situation is even worse in Wales where councillors are only 27 per cent women and 24 per cent in Scotland.

Increasing the number of women in local politics is vital and political parties are hugely responsible. Mentoring schemes can help new candidates navigate the complex selection-committee procedures. Much of the responsibility for increasing the number of women lies with the parties themselves. Training selection committees – who are typically white, male and middle-aged – on equality and diversity will help them to look beyond an unconscious bias that can typically see them “recruit in their own image”. Finally positive action measures such as all-women shortlists should be seriously considered by parties who fail to substantially improve the representation of women at this, or their next, election.

Once elected, women face other institutional barriers. Councillors are rarely paid enough to live on, so those who are not retired or independently wealthy must also have a job. Yet council meetings usually take place at awkward times making it difficult for those with a job and/or caring responsibilities to attend.

Councillors may also be self-employed and therefore lack access to flexible working, job sharing or maternity or paternity leave. Councillors’ expenses still do not cover childcare costs and few councils have creches, so women with children face huge barriers in these roles.

If a woman does manage to navigate these hurdles, she is still likely to face sexist and archaic attitudes from her colleagues. How councils can deal with sexism has changed recently and is no longer adequate.

Since the abolition of the Standards Board, an independent body which investigated claims of misconduct in councils, councillors must investigate themselves. Yet we know from the MPs’ expenses scandal in Westminster that politicians investigating each other is rarely a route to justice.

Councils no longer have to abide by a national code of conduct and, instead, can write their own. Sadly many codes of conducts do not even contain rules against sexism and harassment which means councillors will not be found to be in breach of the code. Even if they did, councils have had the power to suspend councillors removed, they can now only censure councillors which is barely a slap on the wrist.

Local politics has suffered from an unglamorous reputation, low voter turn-out and general lack of interest which means constituents rarely hear about the poor behaviour of their representatives

Yet local government accounts for almost a quarter of all public spending in the UK – but how and where this money is spent is being decided in town halls where an average seven in 10 councillors are male.

We know also that spending cuts at this level are having a skewed impact on services women rely on – research has shown that local authorities have in recent years cut funding for services offering support to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse by almost a third.

Action must be taken immediately to improve the number of female councillors. To do this, councils must also take the issue of sexism seriously. Codes of conduct, sanctions and independent investigation are not “red tape” which prevent councils from doing their job – they are vital to ensure our political representatives are treated with the respect they would receive in any workplace.

Parties would do well to remember also that local government also remains one of the key routes into Westminster. Failing to tackle problems at this level will undermine efforts to increase women’s representation on the national stage.

• Polly Trenow is a senior policy and campaigns officer for the Fawcett Society.