When we think about women's representation our thoughts often turn to the make-up of Westminster (not great I know, at 30% we rank 48th in the world). But if we want to really address where women's representation matters most we should look at little closer to home. It's our town halls not our national parliament which really impact on our lives and that is particularly so for women. Councils employ 1.5 million people (three in four are women) and women are particularly dependent on those local services.
While Westminster has at least improved since 1997 - up from 18%, the picture in local government has barely shifted. Twenty years ago, 28% of our councillors were women, and now that figure stands only slightly higher at 33%.
Behind that stagnation sits an outdated culture of sexism in some parts of local government, which holds women back from staying on and progressing to the top. The extent of this is revealed in new research published today by the Fawcett Society and Local Government Information Unit (LGiU)'s cross-party Local Government Commission.
Our Commission, co-chaired by Labour's Dame Margaret Hodge MP, and Conservative councillor Gillian Keegan, surveyed councillors and found that almost one in four women had experienced sexist comments from others in their party - and a third from other councillors. For one in ten women councillors this had escalated to sexual harassment.
That sexism manifests in other more pernicious ways. 43% of women said they were held back by assumptions made about the things they are interested in or can do as a result of their gender, 47% said that the informal networks where decisions are often made were a barrier, compared with 36% of men.
Local government is not only unrepresentative on gender. Just 5.5% of the women councillors responding to our survey were from Black, Asian, or minority ethnic backgrounds, and younger women are particularly outnumbered by their male counterparts.
With women outnumbered two to one on councils, it isn't surprising that the way councils operate at a practical level holds women back. Most business is done at inflexible and lengthy meetings, and the support available for people with caring commitments, which still means primarily women, is often still woefully inadequate. 28% of women said that childcare was a barrier for them, compared with 17% of men, and 47% said other caring commitments, such as for older or disabled relatives, was an issue compared with 26% of men. Most councils have no formal maternity or paternity policies in place, which holds back 33% of 18-44-year-old women.
In this context it isn't surprising that women in local government face an uphill struggle to rise to the top. Only 17% of council leaders are women - fractionally up from 14% in 2008. We know that this isn't because women lack ambition - an equal proportion of men and women said that they wanted to progress to a more senior role in their council. But when we asked about the reasons for the lack of women at the top, 42% said that they are pigeonholed into particular roles, 39% felt that council culture holds them back from showing their talents, and 29% felt that sexism from other councillors plays a significant part.
Our research has found that one of the major barriers to progress is incumbency. 80% of council seats are held by incumbents at each election. For those who have been in place for 20 years or more there are three men for every one woman. It is difficult to promote diversity when there is so little turnover. Pale male and stale just about covers it.
This is a time when we are driving more spending and decision making down to local level. Yet the evidence we have uncovered reveals an outdated culture which is holding local government back. It is ripe for change. In the summer our commission's final report will make recommendations to the political parties, councils, and central government so that we can begin to change the face of local politics.Suggest a correction