Emily Carter works in communications and campaigns. She is a member of the Manchester Conservatives and her background is parliamentary research and events management.
Eight Metro Mayors. 53 candidates. Just 10 of which were women. That’s a paltry 19 per cent. Only two were Conservative: Laura Evans in Greater Manchester and Jade Marsden in Liverpool City Region, neither with a strong chance of success in the (currently) staunch Labour areas.
Recent results show the wave of devolution to cities and regions, begun under the Coalition Government, has sadly resulted in a gigantic leap backwards for women’s representation. Why? Do women not care about building back better in the regions? Is levelling up something only men should bother attempting?
A key obstacle has to be the pipeline of talent that leads from local government all the way to the city regional level. Elected Local Authority positions are dominated by men, with just 21 per cent of local authority leaders being women. In this month’s English council elections, just one-third of candidates were female. Another factor must be that when allocating portfolios of responsibility, women tend to be pigeon-holed to lead “girl jobs” such as education or care portfolios instead of some of the more ‘Metro Mayoral’ devolved policy areas such as transport and housing. The Fawcett Society is calling for councils to commit to gender-balanced leadership in their cabinet or committee chair posts and eradicate ”girl jobs and boy jobs”.
This age-old structural bias results in limited women in the local government pool, reducing even further when you factor in relevant subject experience. “We need to see more women encouraged to get into politics – for many this begins at the local level” said Felicia Willow, CEO of the Fawcett Society. But is it a lack of interest or a case of historic barriers to access?
As we climb out of the pandemic, it’s worth assessing the impact that it has had on the female population as a whole. There is a wealth of evidence showing that women have been hit harder by the pandemic than men because they are in general poorer, more likely to have caring responsibilities, and to rely more on benefits. So, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d be first in line to smash the domination of the Metro Men to ensure that women and gender issues are no longer frozen out of the local policy making process. This is not being born out in the recent country-wide contests.
Metro Mayors are directly elected as individuals rather than as representatives of national political parties, so unlike MPs or council leaders who are selected by their local party, a Metro Mayor is not dependent on their local party for appointment or support. Instead, they are accountable to the local people in their area. On top of that there is no one-size fits all devo-deal for powers, funding, or the makeup of the combined authority. This lack of clarity, cohesion, and structure, may not create a conducive environment for women, full stop, let alone ones with caring responsibilities, childcare, or a case of imposter syndrome.
The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed the economic landscape of the English regions. Industries that largely employ women such as the care sector, hospitality, and retail, have been hit harder than construction or manufacturing. If most people round the table are men, there may be a gap in thinking around what regions and cities need to do to build back better. Not to mention that having both men and women involved in decision-making broadens the perspectives, increases creativity and innovation, diversifies the talent pool and competencies, reduces conflicts and improves the process of decision-making.
2021 must be a tipping point. Local government must modernise and make local council roles accessible to women by providing the internal structures, flexibility, and support that is now common practice in the private sector. This would allow women to get the experience needed to be confident and qualified to take up a Metro Mayoral role.
But we as a party must do more. Women2Win has been successful in boosting the number of women running for Parliament; they must now turn their attention to include the next tranche of metro mayoral candidates.
A joint effort from campaign groups, political parties, and local government, can deliver better representation at a metro mayoral level, and it needs to happen now.
The architects of devolution were all men: John Prescott, George Osborne, Sir Howard Bernstein. It’s high time we added a few female names to that list of devolution pioneers.