Why are there so few women in local politics? Six female councillors in West Berkshire discuss the issue and their hopes for change

It’s a well-known and oft-reported fact that women are under-represented in politics. A third of our MPs are female (220 out of 650). This is a lot better than 100 years ago when there were just two: it then took another 75 years for the number to reach double figures. There will be a chance to do something about this when the next election swings round some time before 25 January 2025. Before then, however, there’s a chance to see how the picture is changing at a local level. 167 councils (including Swindon) held elections on 5 May 2022 with the rest (including West Berkshire, Wiltshire and the Vale) in May 2023. In 2022, about a third of the candidates were female, about the same percentage who are currently councillors. We seem to be stuck at a ceiling of about 35%. A survey done in 2109 suggested that the average councillor was a 59-year-old man called John. I doubt it’s changed much since.

West Berkshire has six female councillors out of 43: not on the face of it an impressive return but it’s unwise to read too much into figures with such low bases. I contacted them and heard back from five: Lynne Doherty, Joanne Stewart and Claire Rowles (Con), Martha Vickers (LD) and Carolyne Culver (Green). I also spoke to Olivia Lewis, an independent town councillor on Newbury Town Council. There were many more I could have contacted at town and parish level but, as these don’t tend to experience contested elections, it seemed as if there might be different factors at work.

Before looking at any of the issues, it’s worth reflecting on whether gender parity is a good idea. Personally (and I speak as a man who has never held any elected office) I think it is. Others may disagree, perhaps covertly. I asked the councillors above if, at the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes, they felt there were any qualities women might be more likely to have which would make them well-suited to aspects of political life. The majority response was “no”, although several suggested that men might have more self-confidence (perhaps unsurprisingly as they tend to call the shots). Martha Vickers also suggested that women might be more conscientious, more likely to seek advice and were better listeners. If, as several of the councillors suggested (see below) confidence were an issue, then these might be a beneficial side-effect. After all, there’s often a world of difference between thinking you can do something and actually being able to.

I must confess I can’t think of any one personality trait which one can be fairly sure is more found more in one sex rather than the other. The best I can say is that I feel that women and men tend to approach life from a different point of view: again, perhaps this is societal. If pressed further, I’d say that women were likely to be more emotionally sophisticated than men. However, I have no way of measuring or proving this. It’s also moot whether this is a desirable quality for politics: or, more to the point, whether it encourages political participation in the first place.

So, why the reluctance? In some cases, the reasons seem to be practical and domestic, particularly if there are children involved. I suspect that it’s still common (though less so than in the past) that, if both parties in a relationship work, for the woman to have the one with shorter hours and more flexibility. Women who go back to work after having kids tend to take jobs that fit around school hours. “Whilst my husband is very hands-on,” Olivia Lewis said, ” his job has less flexibility than mine so if the kids are ill it tends to be me that takes the time off work.  I also carry more of the mental load in terms of making arrangements.” Martha Vickers added that women “generally still bear the brunt of caring responsibilities,” which doesn’t only refer to children.

There’s also the question of money, particularly in these hard-pressed times. At the local level at least, politics is not well-paid compared to what the skills that got you elected could command commercially. Carolyne Culver pointed out that, “in my view working full time does not leave enough time to be a diligent councillor.” The councillor’s allowance would not, she suggests, be enough to compensate anyone from leaving an averagely well-paid job, or even going half-time. What happens in May 2023 will, she suggests, “come down to whether people have the time to be a councillor and whether they can afford it.”

Several of the councillors mentioned the question of confidence. Olivia Lewis suggested that women “are more prone to imposter syndrome. You need,” she adds, “to be very sure of yourself to serve in any front-bench position in politics, local or national.”  Lynne Doherty – who as WBC’s Leader is right on the front of the front bench – agreed. “I think women are less confident of their abilities than men. When I speak to women about this they ask, ‘could I actually do this?'” This is echoed by Martha Vickers’ comment that women “tend to think more seriously about the effect of their decisions on family members.” Again, this seems like a good quality.

Then there’s the misogyny and all that goes with that. This can be outright and violent – Claire Rowles talked about the deaths of David Amess and Jo Cox and also the “threats of violence” – or more insidious, taking the form of “casual sexism and undermining of women and their ideas,” as Olivia Lewis put it. Social media has played its own part in this, enabling attacks easily to be made from long distance and with no danger that you’ll ever meet the person you’re insulting (the threat of which tends to be a good way of moderating your tone). Abuse isn’t restricted to women, of course, but in those cases it can acquire a darker and more visceral form. Lynne Doherty felt that “many women are put off by what they hear online and in the media.” If that’s the case then they perhaps have good reason to be. Proceedings in Westminster and in council chambers can verge on the gladiatorial. Carolyne Culver adds that “many people don’t like party politics full stop – they think it’s either boring or vicious.” She doesn’t exclude men from this reaction: however, to return to Martha Vickers’ sentiment, perhaps this is part of thinking about the effect that a decision to enter politics will have. It seems possible that women tend to reflect a bit more about the implications and are more alarmed than men by the possible downsides. 

One of the best ways any ingrained attitude can be broken down is by having positive role models to follow: “see Jane, be Jane.” This seems to have had an impact on Joanne Stewart, who launched her political career in Tilehurst South and Holybrook “where the Chairman and the Vice Chairman are both women and have been for many years.” She has since encouraged other women to join that council. The fact that two of the three political parties represented on West Berkshire Council are led by women provides further encouragement. This may, however, take generations to change as many of the strongest-held views we have were instilled in us at a very early age. (To me as a child, for instance it seemed completely normal for the woman to go out to work and for the man to be at home because that’s how my parents generally organised things. I can still remember that my friends at school were genuinely amazed, even shocked, by this.)

In this article which she wrote for us in 2021, former Newbury Town Councillor and Mayor Gillian Durrant suggested that the adversarial attitudes that politics seems to engender could be mitigated simply by changing the way the chambers were organised, perhaps using the fan-shaped seating arrangement which is often found elsewhere in Europe. The fact that the benches in the House of Commons are separated by a distance of the length of two swords perhaps tells us all we need to know about the institution’s psychology. If a change were to be made the the building, this would be a good time to do it. It’s crumbling, leaking and rat-infested and requires billions of pounds of investment. The MPs may have to move out while this happens so it might be worth seeing if a differently configured building might help change their behaviour. At present it seems that everything about the Commons is designed to replicate as closely as possible the processes, ambience and manners debating societies of our older public schools or universities, so ensuring that anyone who has experienced these will feel immediately at home and anyone who hasn’t will not.

I asked what steps the parties were taking to redress the gender balance here in West Berkshire in a year’s time. “Being the only woman Liberal Democrat district councillor among a group of 16 has been a stark reminder that we need to do better,” Martha Vickers admitted. Her party has reserved three target seats for women although in the first wave of candidates announced in 2023 only six out of the 23 were female. Clearly, however, a party can only select someone who is willing to stand. Lynne Doherty said that “We have actively been trying to break down some of the perceived barriers since 2019. For example, I introduced a parental leave policy at WBC. We increased allowances to financially support those giving up their time.” Carolyne Culver said that the Greens were “going through a process of encouraging women to join the party and women members to stand for election.” There are also a number of media campaigns and network groups such as #askhertostand #becomeacouncillor #50:50parliament #internationalwomensday which Lynne Doherty referred to but which are, I believe, apolitical.

There’s also the question of whether entering politics at any level is the most effective way of achieving change. This is possibly more likely to be felt among people who feel that change is urgently needed. “Some women I speak to prefer to be involved in single issue campaigns about climate change, biodiversity, recycling, housing, poverty and so on. They don’t think being a councillor is an effective way to pursue these concerns,” Carolyne Culver observed. Again, many men might feel the same way.

The political parties could be criticised for failing to put up enough female candidates but they can, of course, only select people who are prepared to stand. For a number of reasons, some of which have been suggested above, politics may appeal less to women, especially as this is a world in which they are, on average outnumbered by two to one. Age is another factor that seems to hold people back from local politics – the typical councillor, remember, is not only called John but is also 59 years old. The dearth of younger people is perhaps as big a concern as that of women and, depending on how you define “young”, perhaps even more acute. Certainly, the day when the average councillor is a 39-year-old woman called Jane could be a long way off. It may be that, no matter what encouragement and support they are offered, fewer women will want to enter the arena unless there are some changes in the wider world. Perhaps the real problem is not with women or men, nor with the young or the old, but with politics. Politics is but a reflection of the society that it represents, so to some extent we are all responsible for any problems in the way that we’re represented. As the old adage goes, every society gets the government it deserves: whether it’s the one that it needs, however, is another matter.

• WBC is hosting a webinar about women in local politics at 7pm on Wednesday 1 June 2022. You must register in advance for this webinar online by clicking here.

 

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