Time to stop wringing our hands on gender balance

Mark Pack has run another interesting analysis on the way we have stalled in recruiting women into local government.

When I was elected to Southwark council in 1994 our large Lib Dem group had already achieved gender balance. When I was selected as PPC in East Hants in 2002 our ruling Town Council group had also achieved gender balance. It is therefore very sad all these years later to see how things are stalling or going backwards.

I totted up the following figures on the counties some months ago. I put the figures together in a hurry, have not allowed for recent by-elections and I might have made the odd wrong assumption that a name is male or female. Please accept my apologies for any mistakes but even with those many health warnings I was shocked by the following balance of male and female Lib Dem councillors on the counties:

Devon: 6-1
Gloucestershire: 12-2
Hampshire: 17-2
Hertfordshire: 14-3
Norfolk: 9-2
Leicestershire: 11-2

There are many possible explanations:

1. The atmosphere in Councils. When I was young, Labour councillors had three nicknames for me: Morticia, Barbie and Mata-Hari. These names were used openly and the last one was used directly in open committee. Perhaps it is a bit better now but from what younger women tell me, not much and now of course social media creates new sexisms.

2. Meetings in the day and no childcare.

3. 82% of women have children but only 3% of councils have any provision for ordinary councillors to take maternity leave.

I may be on dodgy territory by misusing the title of the genius of a young writer Reni Eddo-Lodge but after 32 years in this party I do feel like saying: “Why I’m no longer talking to male councillors about gender balance”. The problems are obvious: childcare, maternity leave, money, atmosphere. Now could we stop wringing our hands about gender balance and actually do something about these things?

Apologies to my son (who features unseen in this photo) by asking Lib Dem Voice to use this image again so many years later but a picture speaks a 1000 words. Things can and must improve for women in local government, women can combine politics and family they just need a bit of support to create a level playing field.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Only 3% of councils have provisions for parental leave? That’s crazy!

    Why not just have a list of deputies (perhaps non-elected candidates in other wards) for each party? Have them able to stand in for a limited time in the event of pregnancy (or bereavement, short-term illness etc.)

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Apr '18 - 1:53pm

    What is to argue with here?


    And to agree with,


  • Ruth Bright 3rd Apr '18 - 5:13pm

    Hi Tim – thoroughly agree that the Tory record is dreadful (both in terms of attitudes and numbers) and they dominate the counties of course. I don’t doubt that the mets and London are better but since 2014 most of our groups in London are so tiny it is hard to read anything significant into the figures. I think we can all agree that a balance of 17-2 or 14-3 is truly shocking.

    Thanks so much Lorenzo.

  • John Barrett 3rd Apr '18 - 7:04pm

    There may also be something more fundamental than the possible barriers which have been identified above; childcare, attending daytime meetings etc.

    Having experienced life as a councilor and as an MP, I would not recommend being elected to serve on a local authority as an alternative to a well paid satisfying career, which many young women have, as well as family and many other commitments.

    When I was on the council, we had exactly a 50-50 gender split in our group, but it was not childcare issues which put off most elected female councilors from standing for Parliament. It was the wish not to give up their careers outside politics, which was an option while still a councilor, but not if elected to Parliament.

    On the council life can be very demanding, both during the day, in the evenings and at the weekends, not just being a councilor, on council duties, but campaigning, fundraising and leading a team of enthusiastic volunteers. Having done it once, I would not choose to do it again and it is no surprise to me that many women (and men) also choose not to contest a council seat, especially if there is a chance of winning it.

    If people make the sensible choice not to let politics take over their lives, it is usually a wise decision. Possibly women are just more sensible than men when it comes to getting the balance right between, politics, work, family and everything else.

  • Ruth Bright 3rd Apr '18 - 11:05pm

    John I know what you mean and feel sad that you would not choose to do it again.

  • I accept of course what Ruth says. However we need to focus upon atmosphere. If Councillors are being rude to others in meetings open to the public, and my experience is it happens all too frequently, then what should we be doing about it? There is a clear need to review how we behave at all meetings, including party meetings. Are we open to all? Do we ensure everyone’s views are listened to? Do we understand what bullying is? We live in a society where, apart from crowdfunding, one needs money to have recourse to the legal system. This does not mean that the need for us to have high standards should not be recognised. We also need to focus upon standards in the new world where councils can ignore them.

  • On Essex CC after the 2009 election LD group was 8 female, 4 male. But (in all parties) older than average, probably because of daytime meetings.

    Since the introduction of cabinet government, non-cabinet councillors (ruling group and opposition) are further away from decision making. The inability to affect decisions probably puts off many people. Perhaps older men are content with largely pointless meetings!

  • Mick Taylor 4th Apr '18 - 12:12pm

    From my extensive experience persuading people to stand for the council – both district and town/parish – the main reason why too few women are selected/elected is because they are not asked. This unconscious bias needs to be recognised and fought against. In my case I have always sought to have balanced tickets with a 50:50 gender split and with appropriate representation of other minorities. I have almost always succeeded. The group I led after the last all-out borough council elections was probably slightly more women than men and remained in balance until the coalition years when losing seats depleted the whole group but we lost more women than men.
    I voted for the changes to our procedures to allow all-women shortlists, because we had tried everything else and it hadn’t worked. Fundamentally, those recruiting candidates at whatever level need unconscious bias training, so that they start to look for good candidates from both genders equally and take account of ethnicity and gender as well.
    As to the atmosphere in council chambers and the timing of meetings. It is also my experience that as gender balance approaches 50:50, the behaviour improves and members are more open to changes to timings of meetings and offering support for child care.
    So it can be a win win, but only if we as a party as determined to make it so and go all out to ensure that it is.

  • Ruth Bright 4th Apr '18 - 12:27pm

    Tom, Mick so positive – thank you.

  • And if my earlier comment sounded too negative, there are things we can do. In particular, seeking out more people from under-represented groups to join and get involved, and try to break down the barriers to them standing.

  • Yeah, I am blessed to have grown up as a liberal in Calderdale, where the fruits of Mick’s (and others – step up Janet Battye, Pauline Nash and Christine Bampton-Smith among others) labours are obvious – our council group has always been roughly gender balanced and indeed skewed female at times.

    We’ve just got to keep on buggering on, Ruth. The will of the party is with us, mostly.

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