It was a bloke’s world in the Super Thursday elections – why do so few women stand for public office?

With thanks to the Fawcett Society and the Democracy Club, we can analyse the gender of the more than 21,000 candidates that stood last Thursday. Just one third were women (33%). Of the major parties, the Greens had the highest proportion of women at 43%, followed by Labour (41%), the Lib Dems (31%) and the Conservatives (27%).

This article sets out the data and asks why relative few women are standing for elections. It does not provide any answers.

My first thought was bias against women in the selection process. That may well exist. But of the 1,285 candidates whose description was “Independent”, and therefore were self-selected, just 24% were women.

Per cent female candidates May 2021

Long ago, in the dark ages of democracy, it was almost all men. I remember attending the infamous smoke filled rooms of men puffing on their pipes and puffing out their opinion on how their town or county should be run.

Thank goodness that has ended. No smoking and an expectation that women have an equal right to participate are the new normal. Of course, puffing out opinion, no matter how ill informed, remains a core value of politics. Meetings are in theory gender neutral but why, oh why, are so few women standing for local councils and other public roles today?

The lack of gender balance is not restricted to a few areas. In Scotland, 37.5% of candidates on 6 May were women. In the Welsh Senedd elections, just 196 of the 634 candidates were women (30.9%). The London mayoral election had greater gender equality at 41% female candidates.

Looking at the 46 English counties and districts where 50 or more seats were up for grabs, there were higher proportions of women in Doncaster (41.9%), Chorley (41.0%) and Cambridge (40.7%). Coming in at the bottom were Gloucestershire (27.9%), Leeds (26.6%) and Isle of Wight (24.6%).

As I said at the top of this article, it can’t just be about selection as only 23.6% of independent candidates were women (I have excluded the various independent parties from this calculation as they presumably have some form of selection).

In a report published in 2018, Sue Maguire from the University of Bath summarised some of the barriers to women participating:

“The white, middle class and male dominated environment of British politics (both national and local government) is a major barrier to widening participation among women and other under-represented groups. Women’s continued role in assuming caring and household responsibilities poses another significant barrier, especially among younger women and those with young children.”

She adds that lack of financial resources may also be contributing along with weaker motivational factors such as ambition, self-confidence, self-belief and dedication.

I have of course looked at my own backyard. I was one of 232 candidates standing for Shropshire Council on 6 May. It was depressingly similar to the national picture. Only 28.4% of candidates were women: Green 48.8%; Labour 31%; Lib Dems 29.8%; Conservatives 18.8%; and Independents just 14.3%. The newly elected council is now just 24.3% female.

I don’t think councils can represent their communities well if they do not look like communities. My county is not ethnically diverse. Just two per cent of residents are non-white and we have no unitary councillors from ethnic backgrounds. But just over half of our population is female. I instinctively feel that we should be reflecting that in our body of councillors.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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17 Comments

  • I provide training for the party on, among others things, increasing the number of female Council candidates. In Kingston we have strategies which resulted in a majority of female candidates and elected councillors in 2018. We took control and the majority of portfolio holders were also women (including the Leader). This was not a one-off pattern – we had been recruiting good numbers of women for several years
    In spite of that, the number of women who have come forward for selection for our next elections in 2022 has dropped quite dramatically. And it is entirely due to the pandemic. Our approach in the past has been based on building good face to face relationships with members , new ones in particular, and asking, over and over again. If we put out a plea for people to consider standing via email virtually all the respondents are men. To encourage women to stand there has to be personal interaction and that has not been possible for the last 15 months.
    So yes, we know how to encourage women to stand, but we just haven’t been able to do it during the last year, and that must have applied for this year’s elections as well.

  • nigel hunter 14th May '21 - 9:35am

    Mary Reid You have not been able to recruit women this last year.So why do the Greens get better results? Is it cos they are a ‘new’ party, the future with more enthusiasm, devotion to the cause AND will have to deal with the consequences of Global Warming

  • This is an important subject Andy, so I’m glad you’ve raised it.

    The reasons are many and complex, and there’s a lot of work done on this already well worth discussion, but I’d say the main reasons are:
    1. the “middle-aged white men” in some areas don’t see it as a problem. It might be nice to have, but they have other priorities.
    2. the “ask her to stand” campaign is great and deserves more discussion. That question needs to be supplemented with “and offer to help with childcare”. Or perhaps pre-empted with questions on the challenges of standing.

    I read about the writing process for a recent animated film. This is always a long, drawn out process with many iterations and notes for writers. In this case each version was returned to the writers with a note of which percentage of lines were by women and how many by men. Over the various iterations the script went from having 10% of lines for female characters to it being around 50% – each version being returned with the latest tally. There was no scolding or demand for particular changes – at least not in terms of lines for women, but seeing that figure was apparently enough to jolt the writers out of their traditional approach to writing.

    I am sure some local parties have been doing great work for gender and ethnic balance, so can we brag about them more? Can we do it in a way that will be noticed by the local parties who are stuck in a rut? Can we convince them that it will make campaigning easier as the public and media like it when there’s a variety of representation within candidates?

  • I got side-tracked half way through my post, so missed your valuable contribution Mary.

    While it is disappointing that you saw a drop off in interest over the last year, at least this experience goes to show the value in the approach you have been using in normal circumstances.

    Nigel – it’s fair to point out that the Greens have done better at this. As you point out, they are ‘new’, their entire party demographics are different and their headline policies are especially appealing to younger and female voters. We could resign ourselves to accepting they have this advantage, but I think we should be shouting much more loudly about our environmental policies. I already thought we’ve been too quiet about them, but you’ve given another reason.

    It will be a bit different in England and Wales, but in Scotland last week’s election coincided with the school exams and the campaign period with the peak stress revision period for exam age children. Many parents will feel torn in how much time they can commit to campaigning, especially if it’s for a seat they won’t win (this time). Hoping to change the election or exams calendar is beyond the powers of local parties, but it comes back to my previous point about thinking creatively about the kind of support candidates need. It’s all very well offering to help with leaflets, but perhaps the candidate needs help with shopping or housework.

  • John Marriott 14th May '21 - 12:14pm

    Not enough non male candidates (being PC here)? You could have fooled me!

  • @Fiona. There is another factor at play here. It is always worth asking what support there is for councillors when elected and how family friendly the timetables are – these of course impact on both men and women, but the latter are more likely to check them out in advance.
    In Kingston when we first took control many years ago we brought in child care allowances for councillors which were later extended to include caring for parents or others.
    Also all Council meetings are held in the evening and during term time only. I’m astonished to learn how many Councils still hold formal meetings during the day, which exclude so many people from participation.

  • John Bicknell 14th May '21 - 2:23pm

    Interestingly, of the last 11 Westminster by elections, 10 have been won by a female candidate. Let’s hope that Sarah Green makes it 11 out of 12!

  • John Marriott 14th May '21 - 3:55pm

    @Mary Reid
    It might seem logical to abandon day time meetings, living as you do in the metropolis. However, from my 30 years’ experience of attending council and committee meetings up here in rural Lincolnshire, it might be fine if you are trying to hold down a job. So called evening meetings are not necessarily the complete answer either. Even if you do have a daytime job and still want to play an active part in your young children’s lives, can you really justify grabbing a quick tea and then heading off to the council chamber, returning home in time for bed? Believe me, you are likely to end up being pretty knackered, as meetings can often go on for hours.

    My District Council, of which I was a member for 18 years, switched to late afternoon meetings in the 1990s, which made it easier for me to attend. However, I still rarely got home by 8pm. Previously I used to give up two free periods every Thursday afternoon when meetings usually took place. Now I would finish school at the normal time, dash the 22 miles down the A15 to Sleaford and have time for a nibble and a drink before meetings began at 4pm.

    By the time I became a Member of the Lincolnshire County Council in 2001, whose meetings usually began around people 10am and occasionally lasted, with a break for lunch, around 3pm, I had taken early retirement from teaching. Otherwise there was no way I could have attended meetings on a regular basis. Urban Kingston is not rural Lincolnshire, after all, where, for some councillors, a round trip of nearly 100 miles on largely country roads is necessary to attend meetings.

  • @Mary, it sounds like you are doing great work.

    I think or at least hope it’s fair to say that most fathers who are of an age that they’ll have children that need looking after are aware of needing to do their fair share, but we know that in reality things are still lopsided. In particular, I agree with your point that women are more likely to worry about it and rule themselves out prematurely.

  • Nonconformistradical 14th May '21 - 4:51pm

    “Urban Kingston is not rural Lincolnshire, after all, where, for some councillors, a round trip of nearly 100 miles on largely country roads is necessary to attend meetings.”

    Quite. Given the extent of online attendance at meetings during the pandemic perhaps hybrid meetings – some people in the council chamber and some attending online might make life easier..?

  • One answer to Andy’s question can be found in the background information to the current Government consultation on Local authority remote meetings:
    “Additionally, some members have referenced the vast improvement in the quality of debate when there is a lively atmosphere and they are able to make full use of their oratory skills to persuade and influence others.

    I suspect that the Council Members who expressed this view were men, and that the ‘lively atmosphere’ for influencing other Councillors is offputting to some potential candidates – especially (though not only) women.
    In any case, is a lively atmosphere or influencing through oratory conducive to good decision-making? And where is the boundary between ‘a lively atmosphere’ and bullying conduct?

    If the comment that I have quoted prompts you to respond to the consultation, here is the link: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/local-authority-remote-meetings-call-for-evidence/local-authority-remote-meetings-call-for-evidence

  • Andy Boddington 15th May '21 - 5:39am

    Thanks for these comments. I agree with John Marriot about the difficulties of attending meetings in rural areas at. As I don’t drive at pesent, it would be a sixty mile round trip by public transport taking three hours. So I spend more time on buses than trains than in meetings. (Though I often cadge a lift.) Shropshire Council has not met at night for more than a decade but we still struggle to attract female councillors across all parties except the Greens. I quite agree that we should continue to hold online meetings. I think Mary Reid’s approach of encouraging women to stand is one we should adopt here in Shropshire but we also need to know more about the barriers to women standing.

  • It’s a great point about the bluster of some public meetings. I’d say it’s an atmosphere enjoyed by a minority and that minority is more likely to be men, but plenty of men find it tiresome and many decent candidates will be put off altogether. It’s more likely to be off-putting to younger people and many from the minority backgrounds we desperately need to get involved.

    There are advantages of in person meetings, but it doesn’t need to be one or the other. There’s a lot of scope for developing a good model for hybrid meetings, but many councils would need to invest in better ICT for meeting rooms. Even holding every second meeting online would reduce the burden for those with long travel times or childcare concerns.

  • A tiny suggestion for LD writing: don’t take percentages into decimal-point corners and crannies. I believe such scrupulous precision adds nothing meaningful, and scares off half the potential readers, at very first glance.

  • Helen Dudden 15th May '21 - 10:51am

    It’s good to have a balance in the boardroom, should be a comment we could add. Women, should be invited where the shortages are. When my children no longer needed the same amount of care, I was able to study and have different interest. I was a widow with two traumatised children.
    I’m supporting the failures of international law, and lobbying again soon, I believe in families for children where problems do not cause problems.
    I hope to finish some law study in the future. Age, nor disability should prevent. Life skills are also useful.

  • Andy Boddington 16th May '21 - 7:25am

    Roger Lake. I take the point without fully agreeing with it. There is a need to show precision. I follow a convention where no decimal points are quoted above the “read more tag”, which is the bit of of the article on the front page of a blog, and one decimal point below the tag. I’ll think on this.

  • Ruth Bright 16th May '21 - 9:05pm

    Andy the party still makes no formal provision for maternity leave. It is just a matter of hoping your local party isn’t full of neanderthals when you raise the subject. I first went on about this when I was a PPC with a bump. The bump turned 18 a few days ago.

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