International Women's Day 2019

Cllr Brigid Jones, Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council, reflects on what still needs to be done to encourage more women to participate in local democracy.

Today is International Women’s Day, which has become a great platform to highlight female achievement and to inspire women to follow their dreams and ambitions.

Over the decades great strides in equality have been made, but more still needs to be done – particularly within local democracy, where women are outnumbered 2:1 by men in local authorities – which rises to 4:1 in leadership roles.

Birmingham City Council has been working to tackle some of the barriers that prevent women from pursuing political roles, and last year we introduced maternity and paternity leave schemes for councillors – putting them on equal footing with council employees.

We also published the Women and Democracy report in December 2018, as a call to action to help remove some of the barriers preventing women entering local government.

Change can be achieved: In 2012, when I joined the Cabinet, I was the only female councillor appointed. Now it is gender balanced at 50:50, which is very unusual – but it shouldn’t be. The change this has made has been immense, with debates taking place and action planned on abortion access, domestic violence and period poverty which were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Earlier this year I was interviewed about these issues, and The Municipal Journal article – first published on 17 January 2019 – is reproduced below.

Female empowerment is in need of a boost

Women are under-represented in local government leadership roles and the West Midlands is behind the rest of the UK. Ann McGuaran examines how this imbalance can be rectified.

Birmingham City Council is already taking significant steps to address the barriers holding back women’s prospects in representation and local government, says a new report.

These include drawing up a revised code of conduct for councillors to include a prohibition on sexual harassment of members and officers.

The council’s report, Women and Democracy, also outlines its plans for implementing further recommendations contained in two 2017 landmark reviews of local government which separately highlight gender inequality.

The city council has had a parental leave policy in place for councillors since May 2018, in line with the policy available to employees. Its councillors can also claim a carers allowance and are entitled to claim tax free childcare and free nursery hours.

In its introduction to the report, the council says it has ‘an ideal opportunity to review the recommendations (in the two earlier reviews) and take ownership of those that are relevant to us as a council’.

The report includes a commitment to collecting and reporting diversity monitoring data on the make-up of local council candidates, working with the police to tackle abuse of council candidates, and lobbying government to legalise remote attendance at council meetings. Other actions and recommendations include:

  • Opening up all senior roles to flexible working or part-time working by default.
  • Consulting on meeting times to better meet the needs of those with caring responsibilities or disabled people – with a question on this already added to the annual members’ survey.
  • Lobbying government to give standards committees more powers to sanction members who sexually harass council colleagues, staff or the public.
  • Unconscious bias training.

The report and action plan summarise the findings and recommendations contained in the two earlier reviews and examine the current position in Birmingham.

The reports were the Fawcett Society and LGiU’s Local Government Commission’s Does Local Government Work for Women?, and the Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) Power to the People: Tackling Gender Imbalance in Combined Authorities and Local Government.

A Leadership Commission was set up to look at the issues within the West Midlands that stopped its high-level positions reflecting local communities.

Its headline findings covered the full profile of diversity, including gender, but identified many of the issues already referred to in these two reports.

These included the fact that fewer women are in senior positions and the need for improved monitoring.

The commission’s key findings were that women have been consistently under-represented in leadership roles, and that the West Midlands is lagging behind Great Britain as a whole in terms of female representation.

Within the West Midlands Combined Authority, female representation in the workforce and in leadership roles is slightly lower that the percentage of women in the working age population.

Brigid Jones is deputy leader of Birmingham City Council and is the only female councillor in the West Midlands Combined Authority cabinet of 15. What is her view on this almost complete absence of women? She told The MJ: ‘A year ago I was the only female cabinet member with voting rights. Now, I’m still the only one.

It’s appalling and reflects the fact that women are not making it into leadership positions in their home authority.’

She points out that Birmingham City Council’s cabinet is ‘gender balanced – but that’s a rarity nationally’.  Ms Jones highlights the need to improve the city council’s diversity monitoring. She adds: ‘Collecting the data is vitally important. You can’t address problems you don’t know  exist.’

What does she think has to be done to address the fact that Birmingham’s performance is among the lowest of all the core cities for women in terms of economic and core skills  measures? She says: ‘The West Midlands Combined Authority is responsible for transport and skills in the main. If we look at who is making decisions about skills training we have a disproportionately male power base making decisions on crucial issues, such as public transport which disproportionately affect women, as well as decisions on skills investment.’

In her view, for the city council, the changes that make biggest difference are structural ones. Since the introduction of parental leave for councillors, ‘we had one man go off on paternity leave and a woman go off on maternity leave…but we need more structural change’. She says the 2012 removal of pensions for councillors has disproportionately affected women. 

She believes the lack of female representation in local government is reflective of the ‘general sexism and harassment that has been demonstrated in society generally’.

In conclusion, while she underlines that the city council has made a ‘big effort’ to do what it can at a local level to tackle this, she says: ‘The really big things that need to change are at  a national level in employment terms and conditions’.

This blog was posted on 8 March 2019

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