Supporting women into public office

An LGA toolkit aims to help improve gender equality.

With International Women’s Day 2020 coming up this month, we have a great opportunity to recognise and champion the vital role of women in public life.

After the last round of local elections in May 2019, the Fawcett Society crunched the numbers and found that, although there had been a very small shift towards gender equality, women still represented only 35 per cent of all councillors.

While many councils have shifted their balance, 96 per cent still have more male councillors than female. There are far too few women serving as council leaders, and executive functions such as finance are still absurdly male dominated.

So why are these figures important? Because good democratic decisions are usually made in a way that is as inclusive as possible of the voices of those upon whom they impact. This isn’t to say men don’t play a valuable role as councillors, or that women would necessarily do a better job – it’s about the councillors that are elected across the country being representative of the communities they serve.

Interestingly, on the LGA programmes to support councillors, almost half the participants are women! Maybe they are more open to learning than men? I merely speculate!

So how can we improve diverse representation? First, we can encourage more women to stand for public office.

The LGA’s ‘Be a Councillor’ campaign offers resources you can use in your local area, to instigate this kind of conversation with local people. Promoting the role of councillors and encouraging more people to consider standing for election is one important part of broadening the diversity of people who are ultimately elected.

“Many women fear what might happen to them in public life

Even where there is good knowledge about the vital role councillors play in our communities, there are often particular obstacles that women cite as reasons why they feel they could not stand. One is having caring responsibilities, for children, parents or grandparents.

Responding to this, the LGA has created a toolkit to help women, parents and carers to balance these needs with the requirements of being a councillor, with information about how councils can support them to do this.

Having caring responsibilities should not pose an obstacle – this is a common part of life – and we must work to ensure that the role of councillor in 2020 doesn’t make it into one.

Sadly, we also know many women fear what might happen to them in public life, referencing, for instance, the vitriol and bullying behaviour often targeted at politicians online as another reason why they’d be reluctant to stand for election. It’s vitally important that it is made clear that the sector is taking this issue seriously.

The LGA, alongside its sister associations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is leading on a campaign called ‘Civility in Public Life’. This aims to support councillors who are experiencing public intimidation, help councils and their councillors to prevent online abuse taking place, and raise the tone of national debate so that it does not put people off from standing for public office.

While we may not agree with, respect or even like another person, we can conduct our business with them civilly, as community leaders and potential role models, and do what we can to reset the quality of debate in public life. 


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