Reminiscing with a close friend of mine - who also happens to be a female senior manager at a council in east London - we recalled the
high-profile female chief executives who emerged in the late 1990s.
We felt they had been role models for us and wondered why this had not led to the kind of change it seemed to promise.
The May 2001 action research report, Room at the top? A study of women chief executives in local government in England and Wales, confirmed women are under-represented in senior management positions in local government, holding only 36 of 351 council chief executive posts. On top of this, there is evidence that women are under-represented at chief officer level as well.
The Employers' Organisation reported in April 2001 that only 20% of second-tier officers were female, in sharp contrast with the fact women make up over 70% of local government staff.
Clearly there is a problem that needs to be unpicked. Among the usual suspects are:
-- Work/life balance
-- Political expectations
-- Working practices
-- Selection practices
-- Training and support, such as mentoring.
While all these issues are key pieces of the jigsaw, we need to go further and examine organisational cultures, institutional barriers and expectations about what good leadership looks like.
We should ask why local government did not capitalise on the high-profile female chief executives of the 1990s and boost the number of women moving into first- and second-tier jobs.
Was the sudden emergence of these women five years ago just a fad local government was going through, which - like most fashion trends - came
and went without making the kind of impact that improves organisational behaviours
for good? I suspect this is the truth. So what are we going to
do about it?
It requires a concerted effort from HR professionals, the Society of Personnel Officers, head hunters, the Improvement & Development Agency, the Employers' Organisation and the Equal Opportunities Commission to work together to understand what is happening and why in order to reverse the trend.
Director of human resources