Women in local government: time is on the side of change
As first published on Manchester Policy Blogs, University of Manchester on 18 July 2017
Last week, the Fawcett Society, in partnership with the Local Government Information Unit, released a report into whether local government works for women. Here, Cllr Angeliki Stogia, Executive Member for Environment and Skills at Manchester City Council, looks at the report’s recommendations and reflects on Manchester’s path to women’s political representation.
We need a range of different voices round the policymaking table that experience the areas where we live in a different way
In Manchester City Council, 51% of Councillors are women with one of two deputy leaders and three of the six Executive Members currently women
Representation at the Combined Authority level needs to improve and this is where many of our future women national leaders will come from
The caring responsibilities for which many women still take disproportionate responsibility weigh heavily in the balance
If we are going to change things, we have to be with the people who hold the levers
Facing the hard truths about the representation of women in local government, the Fawcett Society report makes recommendations for the hard actions needed if we are to make our local authorities more representative of the population they serve.
Achieving more balanced representation in local Council chambers across the country is something that should concern us all. The reasons found by the report that women do not make it to the top of the representation of our local politics vary from the practical to the highly political. Patchy provision of maternity, childcare and flexible working; an environment where experiences of multiple discrimination, sexism and sexual harassment is commonplace and where the demands from parties, peer pressure and expectations from local residents are all too often challenging to manage.
The important of difference
Some may ask: does having more women in local government really matter? Yes. It does. But the issue is not just about having more women elected to make decisions for its own sake; the frustration is about having a greater number of political representatives who look and sound more like the people they represent. It’s about getting this range of different voices round the policymaking table that experience the areas where we live in a different way.
All of our differences make decision-making better when they are brought to bear on it: that I am a woman, that I grew up in Southern Europe, that I’ve experienced Manchester as a foreign student and that English is not my mother tongue are all part of it because these things are part of me. Multiply that with all the different experiences and backgrounds of the members of the Council, and the representatives and decision makers of the city start to feel, look and sound more like the people that live, work, study and enjoy this city. That must be good for politics.
The Manchester approach
A step change in the representation of our city has been achieved over a long period of time. Over and above the recommendations made by the Fawcett Society, ingredients of our success include strong unwavering commitment right at the top, both from elected leadership as well as the Manchester district Labour party and a plan of action.
All women shortlists started back in 2006, with a bias towards the ones which were most winnable; we have gender quotas for all positions of responsibility in the city; we provide training and support across all stages of the process, from those considering standing to supporting the first steps as elected members; we also have maternity and paternity policies. As a result, 51% of Councillors are women with one of two deputy leaders being a woman and three of the six Executive Members, me included.
So in terms of the representation of women, Manchester City Council does well, and significantly better than others. However, we still have challenges in supporting women with young children. Increasing women’s representation at a Council level as well as across other areas of decision making is key if we are to change representation at the Combined Authority level and this is where many of our future women national leaders will come from.
Challenges beyond representation
Whilst the Manchester’s approach addresses some of the issues, none of the above prepares a woman for the more important lifestyle choice that is the decision to become involved beyond taking part as a local activist. Becoming a Councillor is one thing, making it closer to the front bench as well as getting to and keeping a position of responsibility is another. In my experience, here lies the double challenge of the reality of being a ‘politician’ as well as dealing with the negative connotations that the word and role have acquired and their practical manifestation. The caring responsibilities for which many women still take disproportionate responsibility weigh heavily in the balance. Too heavily for many women.
One dilemma relates to the need to balance the demands and the means to carry out the role properly in the local area, across the city as well as in the party, another is about dealing with expectations of being a public figure in a fast pacing, increasingly populist environment where employers, family, friends can often be unsympathetic to the cause and demands and where there is an increasing appetite for easy answers to complex difficult questions.
My advice for women out there who want to get into politics, those charting their political pathways or those who want to work in the highly politicised environment that local government is, is to go in it and work for the things you care about. Local politics is a challenging environment; choosing to be an elected representative is worthwhile but to survive at it, you need to have a deep commitment and to be able to go back and draw strength from the things that matter to you. When I go to this place, I remember what is at stake, confront my fears and get back to fight for the cause.
We have learned a lot from our experience in Manchester, arguably the most important lesson is if we are going to change things we have to be with the people who hold the levers. Time is on the side of change.