Quotas, targets and strategies – how to get more female councillors

I have been asked how we consistently manage to elect a diverse group of Lib Dem councillors in Kingston, reflecting the local community in terms of gender and ethnicity.

I want to focus specifically on gender in this post, and that got me thinking about quotas and targets.

Quotas

Amongst the many strategies to get a better gender balance in education, employment and political representation, quotas have had their day. There is one simple problem with quotas – they are perceived as unfair all round.

Quotas in general carry the implication that those in the under-represented group are not able to achieve parity on their own worth; access can only be addressed by imposing restraints on selection. Quotas also create resentment amongst well-qualified people who do not fit the quota but who feel they have been overlooked in favour of someone who may be less qualified.

I do understand that quotas can be seen as a rebalancing exercise, but they are not sustainable unless they address the underlying causes of the imbalance. For that reason I was never a fan of all-women shortlists. They were seen as a quick fix to a specific problem in Westminster, although in the end the voters fixed it for us in a much more brutal way.

Targets

Targets can be helpful as a way of focussing attention on something that needs to improve. But they can also have unintended consequences, especially if resources are limited. For example, setting a target for treatment waiting times by the NHS for certain illnesses may result in resources being diverted from treatment for other illnesses.

When thinking about setting targets for recruiting Council candidates we must ask three questions:

  • Does the target fit with our core values? If so, what would it look like to achieve that target? Would reaching the target have other unintended consequences?
  • Why we are not already reaching the target? And how do we find out the reasons?
  • What resources do we need to achieve the target?

Across the country 36% of councillors are women. We could decide that our local target is to recruit a team of candidates with a higher percentage of women than in previous years. That’s worthy, but why not set our sights on 50%? That would resonate better with Lib Dem principles.

So we next ask what would it look like to achieve that 50% target? Are we talking about our candidates in all seats, about those in our target seats only, or about those who actually get elected? We do not have as much control over the latter, especially in marginal seats, so maybe we think that we should concentrate on getting the balance right within our target seats. However, one unintended consequence might be that we still present an unbalanced team in our non-target seats and that gives a poor message about our values to our voters. So we might conclude that we should pay attention to the gender balance across both our target seats and also across all our non-target seats.

Next we should ask why we are not yet there. And we need to examine, honestly, a number of potential reasons.

  1. Is there conscious bias on the part of the people who recruit, approve and select candidates?
  2. Is there unconscious bias on the part of the people who recruit, approve and select candidates?
  3. Is there unconscious bias in the strategies and processes for the recruitment, approval and selection of candidates?

1 and 2 must, of course, be examined and dealt with. But it is all too easy to blame other people’s failings and my contention is that question 3 offers the best way forward. By concentrating on the strategies and processes any individual biases should be exposed anyway.

Finally, we ask about the resources we need. Actually we probably don’t need extra resources, just a repurposing of existing resources.

Strategies

We do not need to use different strategies and processes with men and women, but should ensure that the strategies we do use are inclusive. Put simply, in my experience far more men than women will respond to a general call for candidates, but women and men will respond equally to a personal approach. So that’s what we need to do – make lots of personal contacts.

In normal non-Covid times most active local parties hold many types of events for members and non-member volunteers, from policy meetings through casual drinks to fundraising socials. We can use those occasions to look out for and welcome people who might be good candidates, male and female, and most importantly, to ask them rather than wait for them to volunteer. But it really should be done in person. Zoom meetings are fine when people already know each other, but are not an effective way to meet and get to know new people.

We can hold a new members evening every year or so, offering hospitality and a chance to meet the key people in the local party. Every person who attends can be asked individually how they would like to help the party, including the possibility of standing for Council. Anyone who expresses an interest should then be invited out for coffee and a chat, and encouraged to take it forward. Some people may take time to decide, so stay with them and ask more than once.

It’s actually very simple and enjoyable.  Welcome, ask and nurture. It works.

I started by highlighting the diversity of the Lib Dem councillors in Kingston, but I have to admit that we have fallen short this year in relation to gender. If the deferred election in one ward falls our way next month, then only 45% of our councillors will be female compared with 56% in 2018. As the person responsible for approval and selection of candidates I have been called to account for this! In my defence, I believe it proves that the strategies we have used in previous years (as outlined above) were effective. During the pandemic we could not meet and encourage members in person and as a result our recruitment of female candidates fell.

So if you want to improve the gender balance amongst your candidates in future years, start now. Welcome, ask and nurture. And make it fun.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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10 Comments

  • The responsibility for getting a balanced team must lie with those recruiting candidates. This is where unconscious bias plays a major role. The recruiter must set out with a clear target of 50:50 and ensure that s/he has an appropriate list of people to ask.

  • @Mick Taylor – you are right, of course. But “the list” may not be the only way to find people. We do a new members evening and a new members survey and work on the basis that anyone who responds to either wants to be involved in some way. We have picked up several people who are now councillors who might not have featured on anyone’s list, simply because they had not responded to anything before.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th May '22 - 2:26pm

    Good article Mary, fair sensible.

    I think we need more democracy. Abolish shortlists. Have every candidate who is keen to, go for it at every level, ppc especially. Do as the USA, everyone in good standing, and google there is your friend, allowed. Big campaign, lots of choice.

    I know that at council selection, its often too little interest, not always. If more thought we were truly democratic, more would stand.

    I think we ought to add committees to the things Mary would not use, in her title. Its mad that we ended withon some occassions, candidates for Mayors, who a simple google search would have not put on the ballot, but a so called selection committee did!

  • William Wallace 27th May '22 - 3:34pm

    It’s worth noting that our parliamentary party in the Commons now has a clear majority of women, and that the number of women standing in winnable seats is also high. That’s real progress.

  • Brad Barrows 27th May '22 - 5:59pm

    To be honest, the underlying issue that has to be addressed is setting a target of having a membership that is representative of the population. For as long as the membership is majority male, it will not be surprising if those coming forward as candidates are majority make.

    Second point – is it better to leave some wards uncontested and have 50% female candidates or have all wards contested but with a larger proportion of males? I think the latter.

  • Mick Taylor 27th May '22 - 6:14pm

    @Mary Reid. I forgot to mention the other way of getting candidates and that is to ask those approached who say no to suggest someone else who might be interested. I have at least 2 councillors in my current town council group who were on no-ones list, but were suggested by other people who i had approached.

  • Stephanie Stewart 28th May '22 - 7:45am

    Canadian political parties required at least one women to be considered for every seat and once they had a platform and were encouraged and heard, they were much more often selected. Also, the Democratic Party of the USA has a gender balance requirement for all delegations to events and in local leadership representation. It helps women be represented in the leadership that picks the candidates that run for office. They don’t call it a quota, they call it gender balance.

  • Brad Barrows 28th May '22 - 10:15am

    The SNP aims for gender equality in candidate selection and now has 34 female MSPs compared to 3O male MSPs, and half the Scottish Cabinet is female. This shows it can be achieved if there is political will and enough potential candidates of both sexes.

  • Helen Dudden 28th May '22 - 11:22am

    How about women with disabilities? Disabilities are often missed and addressed in planning and housing.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 28th May '22 - 4:09pm

    It is a huge problem persuading women to stand in areas with an adversarial council. In the NE a cross party group (Lib Dem Liberal and Labour) were working for an elected North East assembly that was fit for women to be part of. At the time I was the only woman group leader in the NE of any party, and it was in a nasty, verbally violent environment there as well as on the council. But I did have a lot of support from that group (as well as my own party).
    We even went to Barcelona in 2002 to an Annual Conference of European Regions, and I successfully moved an amendment to the Declaration of Catalonia about Governments at all levels being a fit place for women to work in.
    Matters have improved and women have got braver as we have Amanda Hopgood as leader of Durham County Council, but I feel it is still an issue to tackle.
    Support is absolutely, critically needed at every stage from being a candidate through to actually being on the council.

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