Binita Mehta-Parmar is the former Conservative Group leader on Watford Council. Cllr Gillian Keegan is Director of Women2Win and the Cabinet Member for Commercial Services on Chichester District Council.
A General Election is around the corner, with an extremely likely result. June 8th will, in all probability, see the second female Conservative leader achieve a resounding majority, and we Conservatives can continue to be proud of our record in getting women elected to the highest public offices.
Since we focussed on diversifying the parliamentary party after the 2005 election, we have increased the number of Conservative women MPs by over 300 per cent. There is still some way to go, with men holding eight in ten Tory seats – but it is clear that when we concentrate on making our party more representative, we have a track record of changing things quickly.
Before the national vote, over half of the country will hold local elections on the 4th May. In our council chambers, that focus on making our candidates truly representative has been missing. This week the Fawcett Society and local government think tank LGiU has published data from the cross-party Women in Local Government Commission, of which Gillian is co-chair and Binita is a commissioner. We have found a story of stagnation – women comprised 28 per cent of all councillors in 1997, and 33 per cent two decades on.
That picture won’t change unless Conservatives change it. We are the largest party in town halls, with 42 per cent of councillors even after seven years in power in Westminster, which rarely favours local election prospects. However, only 30 per cent of our councillors in 2016 were women: a marginal difference from 28 per cent in 2008.
Having more women in will make our local governance more effective – evidence from business is clear that more diverse teams get better results. For example, one of our evidence sessions heard of a newly-elected female district councillor who pointed out that single parents had been missed out of her council’s Council Tax Support scheme. The majority-male councillors had not noticed the exclusion.
What is holding women back?
The commission’s survey of councillors found that overt sexism is worryingly commonplace, with 33 per cent of Conservative women councillors experiencing sexist comments from other members of our party.
Everyone in local government needs to do more to ensure we don’t slip into lazy assumptions about what women in politics can do or are interested in – 40 per cent of Conservative women councillors believe such attitudes have held them back locally.
Local government, at political level, is more male and older than the general population, and this is reflected in the way councils operate. Women typically still perform a larger proportion of family caring responsibilities, and this affects their ability to engage with council business, most of which still takes place at inflexible meetings.
It’s therefore not surprising that more female councillors (23 per cent) said that balancing their work as a councillor with childcare commitments is a barrier than men (15 per cent). Similarly, far more Conservative women (40 per cent) struggle to resolve clashes with other caring commitments, like elder care, than men (23 per cent). The lack of formal maternity provision is also a challenge for women, as is the distance to meetings, especially in county councils.
A familiar critique of local government is that power is invested in “Old Boys’ Clubs”, with decision-making taking place outside formal structures, excluding those not in these networks. Within town halls 41 per cent of Tory women say this is a barrier, compared with 30 per cent of men.
How do we make a difference?
To fix this situation, we need to apply the focus we have seen at Westminster to local government, and do more to get great women in our associations, or who are Conservative-inclined, to consider standing. Two fifths of female councillors have more of an impact through their role than they expected, so we have a strong basis on which to sell its merits.
We asked Conservative women councillors what changes would encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Mentoring schemes were viewed as crucial by 58 per cent, with more flexibility in meeting times also popular (49 per cent). Conservative women want to see councils innovating in order to open up their doors, with 38 per cent favouring better use of technology, including remote voting or Skype meetings. They also felt that women’s networks would support progression to leadership roles – vital, as currently only 15 per cent of Conservative council leaders are women.
The research published today shows that Labour’s quota system has made a difference – at the 2016 local election 42 per cent of their councillors elected were women. As a party we have always resisted all-women shortlists, arguing for women to only take their place on merit. So the challenge to our colleagues in local government now is: what will we do instead to get more women in?