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Progress is needed on representation

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Four years ago I wrote a piece for LGC called ‘Have we cracked equality?’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, I concluded we had not.

And if I ask myself the same question now, I get the same answer.

This is not because local government is a seething hotbed of sexism and discrimination. Far from it - local government is probably one of the most conscientious sectors in terms of promoting and supporting women, and both the LGA and many individual authorities make sterling efforts to ensure that women get a fair chance at most levels.

But local government does not work in isolation, and in society as a whole sexism, discrimination and double standards are widespread.

If you doubt this, just take a look at the Everyday Sexism website (or Twitter feed).

And local government itself is at times a ‘woman-lite’ zone. The recent Sex & Power 2013 report (produced by the Centre for Women & Democracy for the Counting Women In campaign) found that while 23% of council chief executives were female, this was the case with only 12% of leaders.

Since May’s local elections, that proportion has crept up to 13% - a numerical increase of just four women.

Our 2011 report on leadership in local government looked at why this might be.

We found that, despite there being some remarkable women councillors, they simply are not getting into the pipelines that feed leadership.

For instance, 73% of leaders had previously held the economic development or regeneration portfolio, but only 17% of people then holding that role were women.

Similar patterns emerged for the finance and corporate service portfolios.

Moreover, we found that women were under-represented in cabinets generally - the average size of which was eight, with only two women members. There is no reason to suppose this pattern has changed since.

We concluded: “Access to the standard route into leadership for both male and female councillors is so restricted that those who come through it are the least diverse group of political officeholders in the country, and progress … has been more or less stalled for the last decade.”

So, given that any sexism involved is more likely to be structural and casual rather than conscious and intended (although not always, as many women will privately testify), what can we do about it?

As is so often the case, the answer is largely in our own hands.

We need to monitor what is happening, make sure a more diverse range of people get the right experience for leadership roles, broaden our horizons a little and think before we act.

Otherwise, I could be writing the same article again in another four years’ time.

Nan Sloane, director, Centre for Women & Democracy

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