Deep feminism, debating and local Government

After a great Easter break visiting family in Yorkshire –  a break in which I’d turned all social media off and enjoyed the natural equality that my (secular – that’s me) god-daughter claims with her older brothers: for her toys are just toys and a tractor is as good as a pram, despite her middle brother’s attempts to “correct” her  – I was prepping for a meeting at the invitation of the Lewisham Council  to give evidence to their committee on Barriers to Entering Politics. This was quite an extraordinary day for us in the Women’s Equality Party Lewisham – to be included in such an event alongside representatives from the Fawcett Society shows that we are being taken seriously.  It turned out to be an extraordinary day for everyone in the UK because it was also the day that Snap General Election was called.

So you can imagine that the atmosphere in the Committee Room at Laurence House in Catford had a bit of a buzz to it when we arrived and one of the first questions I was asked before the meeting started was whether I’d be standing in the GE. (At that point, Id didn’t know. In the event, as a small party we selected our seats strategically. WEP Lewisham supported our colleagues in WEP Lambeth campaigning for the excellent Harini Iyengar). The Lewisham Council Committee on Barriers to Entering Politics was attended that evening by a room full of women (one male co-ordinator and one man sat on the edges of the room and we weren’t introduced). The irony was lost on no-one and the Councillors all Labour and all women were frank and honest in reflecting on their experiences in response to the reports from both Fawcett and us. I am sure they will be reading the Fawcett Society’s report  – to which our former Policy Director contributed –  published today with great interest.

I am pleased to say that having stood twice as a candidate now for WEP, once for the GLA and once for a seat on Lewisham Council,  I have not encountered the antagonism that many of my colleagues have to tolerate, but there is often the low level hum of sexism in the air …. Our presentation in Lewisham included the reasons why women don’t get involved in local government: everything from timing of meetings, lack of financial support, to the perceived inefficiency, [local volunteering is seen by many women as a more direct way of having an impact locally], through to women being left out of the committees with most influence and women not identifying with the major party machinery (certainly my case) and the difficulty of standing as an independent.

At a recent local hustings, I was the only woman who spoke – from the floor – because the panel was all white and all male. I have observed when I attend public council meetings as an observer that the people sitting on the high platform are often all men. The tone is of an affable men’s club. So elements of this report I recognise, even at this distance.

Yesterday I spent the day at Sydenham School where I recently became Safeguarding Link Governor as a guest at their Deep Feminism Day. I judged two debates and was so impressed by how these young women (year 9 – year 11) take their space, make and rebut arguments: grace, humour, wit and -yes- competitive edge all on display. In the afternoon, another group of year 9s invented a workshop scheme to take into primary schools to run themselves on the theme of equal education (their idea not mine). Another group wanted to set up talking groups with teenage boys about the damage verbal harassment causes (based on their own experiences). When these girls leave school, they will be ready to take their place in the world.  They would make great Councillors (amongst other things) but like my god-daughter they are just beginning to acquire an awareness that the world isn’t fit for purpose for them. We need to clean up our act and make sure that it is.

Later today, I’ll be at the launch of the Fawcett Report  “Local and Equal”  at the House of Commons – an invitation I’m receiving because I joined the Women’s Equality Party and have included myself into politics.  Read our formal response to the report here.

Sexist local governments show urgent need for quotas and statutory childcare policies – Women’s Equality Party

A new report by the Fawcett Society that labels local government ‘not fit for the future’ owing to discrimination and under-representation of women underscores the urgent need to adopt core Women’s Equality Party policies, WE said on Thursday.

The research by Fawcett reveals that women make up only one in three councillors in England – an increase of just 5 per cent in twenty years – as well as just twelve percent of combined authority representatives. In the devolved regions, all six elected metro mayors are men. The report also showed that sexist abuse of female councillors was rife, with BAME and disabled women particularly affected, while career advancement was severely hampered by stereotyping.

“This report demonstrates the extent to which women are held back from participating in local government by structural inequalities including a lack of maternity leave, shortage of flexible working options and institutional sexism,” said Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party. “It is alarming too to see that women are outnumbered six to one in Finance or Economic Development roles – which more often lead to senior posts – while a third of female councillors have experienced sexist comments from council colleagues.”

“The resulting lack of diverse representation and thinking has a direct impact on the way communities are run and must be tackled if local government is to be truly effective and accountable to voters,” Walker added.

Fawcett have made a series of recommendations for change, including a statutory England-wide maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave policy for councillors, help with childcare and caring costs, access to remote working facilities, and target-setting for political parties to increase their number of women candidates.

“Properly-funded parental leave, free childcare, diversity monitoring and flexible working as the default are all core policies for the Women’s Equality Party,” said Walker. “We are delighted that this report recognises the need for positive action to create change, and will push the other parties to adopt our plan for short-term quotas to introduce a better gender balance of candidates in the quickest time,” she said.

“Equal representation is one of the Women’s Equality Party’s core objectives. It is time our policies and practices were implemented so that women can take up their rightful places across local government to make politics work better for everyone,” she added.


Editors’ notes

The Women’s Equality Party contributed to Fawcett’s ‘Local and Equal’ report. You can read more about the report here:

The Women’s Equality Party was established two years ago to highlight and dismantle obstacles to gender equality in the UK: a political and economic architecture rigged against women and diversity, an education system riven with unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, a media that reinforces these stereotypes, a society that assigns little value to caregiving and therefore assumes it to be women’s business, that underpays women and invests less in women’s health and permits endemic harassment and violence against women.

The Party currently has 65,000 members and registered supporters. It aims to put equality for women at the top of the national political agenda by being an electoral force that also works with other political parties; in addition to party membership it also offers joint memberships to members of other political parties.

Press enquiries to Catherine Riley, Head of Communications ( 752 731).

 Press at Women’s Equality Party

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