According to data just 21% of chief executives are women, but the government-commissioned review into equality aims to re-focus efforts on tackling gender issues in local government and the wider workforce, Louise Hunt writes
A flurry of recent Whitehall activity aimed at tackling inequalities should make local government ask itself more vigorously why there are so few women at the helm.
According to the latest data from the Improvement & Development Agency, based on a 2006 survey of councils, 21% of chief executives are women. Granted, this is almost double the amount in 2004, but not nearly enough, says Caroline Slocock, former chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, now replaced by the Commission for Equalities & Human Rights (CEHR).
The figure is marginally higher for female first-tier officers, who represent 25% at this level, one percent higher than in 2004. Ms Slocock says: "It's shocking there is such a small number of women at the top of local government, particularly when 70% of the workforce are women. The figure isn't a great deal higher than the FTSE 100 companies you would expect more in local government."
Mandy Wright, associate director of the IDeA, says there have been improvements in recent years. "There has been slow but steady progress, compared to the 1980s when there were only a few female chief executives in the whole country. A couple of years ago there were not many female chief executives in the north of England. In recent years councils have started hiring more."
But she agrees that given the large proportion of female staff in local government, the figures are a long way from expectations about equality. It is widely hoped the findings of the government's Equalities Review, published in February, will start to make a difference with their focus on tackling persistent inequalities.
The review takes a broad look at the impact of discrimination on society. It highlights gender inequality because of its link to poverty - the fact that women with children in part-time, low-wage jobs receive some of the worst rates of pay in the country. But the review also acknowledges the problems faced by those striving to reach the top of their professions. "Despite there being more women than ever in employment and achieving higher educational qualifications, many barriers to their success remain," it says.
The gender pay gap is also highlighted, with women in full-time work earning 83p for every pound a man earns, while part-time female workers - the majority is also highlighted again - are earning 41% less than a man working full time. At the current snail's pace of progress, the review panel predicts the gap will not close until 2085.
Child rearing and the lack of flexibility within organisations are by far the biggest reasons put forward for the disparity. But it is also a cultural issue. The report highlights a problem within organisations of senior managers seeing inequalities as something separate from mainstream activity, so they become sidelined within decision-making structures. Under the recommendations this is set to change. The onus is firmly placed on public institutions, including community leaders, to "remove barriers and make sure opportunities to flourish are real".
CEHR chair Trevor Phillip's report Fairness andfreedom,says: "Promoting greater equality and tackling entrenched inequalities will be embedded in the way that public institutions carry out their business. There will be an active pursuit of their public duty and a dynamic, systematic and evidence-based approach to taking action."
Since the review published its findings, the gender equalities duty has also come into force, which means councils now have to set an agenda to tackle inequalities, such as pay gaps and barriers to career progression.
Both these recommendations and policies will feed into a forthcoming single equalities bill that is expected to overhaul anti-discrimination legislation by making it more streamlined and easier to implement, so there will be no let-up in attention on the issue.
Ms Wright sees these steps as the push councils need. "If you take the gender equalities duty seriously you have to take action on equal pay and opportunities for flexible working. The duty calls on councils to explain why they are not progressing. Councils will need to take a new look at their workforce."
Ms Slocock says: "I hope that the review and the gender equalities duty will make councils stop and think. The new commission [CEHR] will be looking at reinforcing the duty."
But she believes policies alone cannot make change happen. "It is leadership that is critical and I hope chief executives will recognise this opportunity to use the skills and potential of all their employees."
It will come as little surprise that those councils that have employed female chief executives are also among the most progressive in introducing policies that make it easier for women to work in senior positions. Carole Hudson has been chief executive of St Helens MBC in Merseyside for 15 years and was the only senior woman manager when she was appointed, at which point she was pregnant with her second child. "I have probably acted as a role model for other working mums by having a career and a family," she says.
Ms Hudson stresses that she did not set out to appoint women around her, but an emphasis on transparent recruitment practices and a healthy training budget, including offering sponsored degrees, has helped to get more women appointed on merit.
"The initial challenge was to win the hearts and minds of all staff in terms of equalities and diversity and we set out to raise awareness of equality issues and to challenge the unhelpful attitudes to tackle disadvantage.
"Today 75% of the workforce's staff are women and a high percentage of senior positions across all services - 45% - are held by women, placing St Helens in the top quartile for comparator authorities. Half of the council's directors are women and half of the executive are also women." She adds that key to this achievement has been modernising employment practices for better work/life balance, including offering flexible contracts so that women can work part time, job share or work in school hours, for example by not holding meetings at 6pm.
Ms Hudson says: "At first there was concern that this might affect our performance as a council, but in reality we have remained a four-star, top-rated council for five years."
Sheena Ramsey, chief executive of Knowsley MBC, says changing a masculine working environment into one that values feminine traits is also important. Early in her career, Ms Ramsey says, she was often ignored in meetings, yet her points would later be raised by others. This kind of bullish culture is starting to shift, she says, making the working environment more receptive to female leaders.
"I think the culture has changed. Typically, female traits such as good communication and nurturing are starting to be accepted as good leadership skills," she says. And with three young children herself, Ms Ramsey has to set a good example in adopting practices that value these skills. "It's about leading by example. I feel strongly it's not about adopting masculine behaviour. We've been playing a male game for so long. It's time to recognise the effectiveness in female ways of working."
But Cheryl Coppell, chief executive of Havering LBC, is not absolutely convinced the review and gender duty will make a difference until flexible working becomes the norm. "The fact that there are relatively few women leaders may be a career choice. There are probably a limited number of women looking for this role. You can't underestimate the number of hours involved.
"If there can be more discussion about how you can do the job in different ways more women would be interested." But, she says, this requires a real leap of faith from councillors. "I can see how quite a lot of flexibility can be built into positions up to director level, but as a chief executive you do have to be there. It's much more about a woman's choice."
Whether flexibility is widely offered to the degree that women no longer have to choose between career aspirations and child rearing will depend in part on how robustly the gender duty is enforced if there is a single equality duty.
Ms Wright has her reservations: "We support the proposals for a single equality duty but we do, however, have concerns that in practice the proposals would allow councils that are less committed to equality issues to ignore functions or certain groups.
"We would want more robustness to ensure that councils properly consider all the strands and all their functions in determining their priorities and that there is a clear evidence base for the priorities they set. This is important for gender where sometimes it is assumed that the issue is sorted, except for equal pay."
She adds that the IDeA is encouraging councils to incorporate equalities and cohesion into local area agreements, to help foster the understanding that any gender inequalities need to dealt with.
"If equality is well integrated, councils should become more responsive to the needs of women in general.
However, the single duty should continue to help focus attention as it requires more active promotion of gender equality. It also helps those trying to get gender on their agenda," Ms Wright says.
Otherwise, she is optimistic about the future. "It's been years since there has been so much focus on gender equality. This is the time for things to shift if they're going to."