LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Despite having a female prime minister, local government in England and Wales is still dominated by men and held back by outdated practices and attitudes, a report said on Thursday.
A year-long study by the women’s rights organization the Fawcett Society and the Local Government Information Unit found about 17 percent of council leaders in England and Wales are women, a figure that has hardly shifted for 10 years.
Only one in three local councillors is female - with the slow pace of change meaning it will take county councils until 2065 to have equal numbers of men and women - and almost a third of female councillors experiencing sexist comments.
Digging into the reasons for this, the report found only four percent of local councils have formal parental leave policies in place and 80 percent of seats go to incumbents at election time, making it hard for women to break in.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said “significant barriers” remained in place for women - even though Britain will next year mark 100 years since women could first be elected into parliament.
“We are going backwards and that is fundamentally unacceptable in 21st century,” Smethers said in a statement.
Chairwoman of North Tyneside Council, Cath Davis - a single mother who works full time - said she was initially encouraged by other women to join the council but on arrival found the demographics were “a lot of retired, white men”.
Although this has changed, there remain hurdles deterring women such as time, childcare and transport, she said, adding, that key roles were still predominantly filled by men.
“I would like to see more women in strategic roles,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noting that positions regarding culture, children and other “nurture” roles were mostly occupied by women.
“[There‘s] still a bias towards us doing the softer roles.”
In Manchester City Council there are often young children in the chamber, said Susan Cooley, former Lord Mayor of the city and a councillor who is working to establish crèche facilities.
When she took up her post more than 20 years ago, Cooley said the council was dominated by “old dinosaurs” who still regarded the chamber as a men’s club.
But the landscape in Manchester has changed with the council among the few in Britain where female members outnumber males.
Dame Margaret Hodge, co-chair of a commission of experts put together by the Fawcett Society, said the culture still favored men as decision makers.
“The way councils do business is still designed by, and for, men. This needs to change, and fast,” Hodge said in a statement. “Currently local government is not fit for purpose and does not work for women.”
Claire Kober, the first female chair of London Councils which represents the capital’s 32 borough councils and the City of London, said the report revealed “the uncomfortable truth about the representation of women in local government”.
The report made a number of recommendations to help drive change, including calling for targets for female representation and legalizing remote attendance.
“Being a councillor is so rewarding and offers a great opportunity to learn new skills,” Gillian Keegan, co-chair of the commission of experts, said in a statement.
“We need to get out there and sell the merits of the role to women across the country.”
Reporting by Adela Suliman; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org