Sexism at the Town Hall: time for change

While the media may be taking an interest in claims of sexism in Westminster, there has been no real focus on  sexist behaviour in the corridors of local government. This week the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women’s equality and rights at home at work and in public life published a report saying that sexism and sexual harassment in the town hall are putting off a generation of women from entering local politics. On the day of local and European elections, the organisation’s Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer Polly Trenow explains what it will take will lead to more women taking part in local government.

photo credit: Yodatheoak

Over the last year, sexism in Westminster has been hitting the headlines. From the Rennard scandal to the lack of women in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, it appears the media are starting to take an interest. Not so for sexism in local government, however. On May 22 we will all have the chance to vote in the European elections and many of us will vote in local council members too. Women’s representation is still depressingly low in local government, currently at 32% of councillors , yet we rarely see these facts hit the front pages of daily newspapers.

Moreover, it appears that the sexism and sexual harassment which is being increasingly scrutinised in Westminster, is equally prevalent in the corridors of our local town halls. In March this year a Conservative councillor was lambasted by the press for tweeting a photo of women in their underwear referencing all women shortlists in the text.

A lack of women councillors is both a cause and the consequence of sexism in local government. Yet when local authorities account for a quarter of all public spending in the UK, it is vital that women’s views are equally represented round the table.

For decades outdated and sexist views have been confined within the walls of council meeting rooms. More recently, however, social media has provided an outlet for these views as in the case Conservative Councillor Pete Chapman who called staff at his local Costa coffee shop “bone idle bitches….who need a good beating” on Facebook.

Other reports come from council meetings where councillors make inappropriate comments about fellow councillors or indeed their constituents’ bodies. Some of these do make it into the media, but these are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Key barriers

So why is sexism so prevalent?  A lack of women councillors is both a cause and the consequence of sexism in local government, but there are some key barriers that prevent women from standing for office.

To start, councillors are rarely paid enough to live on, so those who are not retired or independently wealthy must also have a job. Yet council meetings usually take place at awkward times making it difficult for those with a job and/or caring responsibilities to attend. This was the case for Councillor Michelle Sheratt who said she was deselected after failing to find childcare so she could attend some council meetings.

Councillors are also self-employed and therefore lack access to flexible working, job sharing or maternity or paternity leave. Councillors’ expenses still do not cover childcare costs and few councils have creches, so women with children face huge barriers in these roles.

For those women who do decide to stand, they must first get the backing of their party, spending weeks wooing various party officials through the selection process. There is no mandatory collection of demographic data for candidates either before or after selection. This makes it very hard to see the patterns of candidates who are successful.

Yet party selection committees look very much like the broader demographic of political parties: male, white, middle aged and middle class. Low voter turnouts mean parties will often stick to ‘safe’ candidates  (or at least those who are well known) which means new candidates will struggle to get through.

Real power

Once elected, women face a whole new set of problems. Female councillors are much less likely to make it into the cabinet or be given traditionally male portfolios such as treasury or economic development. These portfolios are where councillors can exercise real power and are also a key way to gain the experience necessary to become council leader. It is no surprise then that women make up only 12.3% of council leaders in the UK and those that do become leader are less likely than their male counterparts to have children.

One of the biggest issues for female councillors is challenging harassing or bullying behaviour. When a councillor is accused of misconduct, it is normally up to their party or other councillors to investigate the claims. As the expenses scandal in Westminster has shown, politicians investigating each other is rarely a recipe for justice. Crucially, with the closure of the Standards Board there is no way for claims of misconduct to be investigated and no way to remove those found to be guilty of harassment, bullying or sexist behaviour.

There are several reports of female councillors resigning because of sexism or harassment such as Councillors Anne McKay, Lin Dykes and Eleanor Scott. Council investigations appear not have provided necessary redress for these women who felt compelled to leave because of the behaviour of their colleagues.

Too few women stand for local office and those that do often find the male dominated world of local politics too big of a mountain to climb. Yet when local authorities account for a quarter of all public spending in the UK, it is vital that women’s views are equally represented round the table.

The way forward

So what needs to happen to change this? We need to:

  • create an independent body that can investigate claims of misconduct
  • monitor at the point of application so we have a better understanding of who applies to be a party candidate and who succeeds
  • encourage parties to develop clear, publicly available  guidance for those who have experienced harassment or abuse which outlines what action they can take

The recently announced ‘harassment hotline’ in Westminster or the use of independent councillors to investigate complaints are also good initiatives that should be rolled out to all councils. Finally, council roles should be more flexible to allow those with caring responsibilities to represent their communities too.

Polly Trenow is an independent researcher and writer specialising in gender and economics. She is a member of the Women’s Budget Group and works for the Fawcett Society.

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