Skip to main content

A delicate balancing act

Written by: Anj Popat, consultant – local government, executive interim at Penna
Published on: 25 Oct 2018

It has been 100 years since the suffragette movement and the first steps towards closing the gender pay gap have been taken. Comparatively, local government has led the way towards equality when looking at other sectors. More than 78% of the workforce in local authorities is female and the gender pay gap median is lower than the national average.

On the face of it, this sounds great! The sector has a great reputation and is very attractive to women. The question remains, how many of these women then go on to progress to the top table? The Local Government Association workforce survey in 2016/17 reported that on average 48.8% of the top 5% of earners were women, however the equivalent LGiU report from 2017 showed only 33% of chief executives of councils were women. There is not a single female metro mayor.

So, why is this? What is preventing women, who make up a high majority of the local government workforce, from moving up the ranks and taking a seat at the top officer or political table.

There are many factors that could potentially be perceived as barriers to progression for women. The culture of an organisation could be one of these factors. A culture that doesn’t foster an environment which allows women to progress or take the top job will not see the same level of climbing the ladder as one that does. This culture needs to be embedded deep into the roots rather than being a high level strategy, so all hiring managers breathe the same values.

When reading the LGiU report Does local government work for women?, 43% of women felt their gender was a factor which affected the opportunities presented to them. This raises a question as to whether there is a direct correlation with the lack of female leaders and politicians that can be found in local government. Only one in three councillors are female and of that one in five are leaders. In both internal and external recruitment processes, when panels, made up of councillors, are all or majority male in gender, is there the potential for unconscious bias to play a part? This is something that can relatively easily be rectified.

The other route for progression is internal, through learning and development programmes. Are women being offered the same opportunity to develop and progress as their male counterparts? What development opportunities are available and how do you promote these? Having a comprehensive leadership development programme is all well and good but they need to be accessible to all. Offering coaching and mentoring in addition to this will further have an impact on the number of women you see rise in the organisation.

Another question to consider is whether returning to work following a break has an impact on progression and development? What options are available to those returning to work following a break whether this is due to illness, carer responsibilities or maternity leave? If we take maternity leave as an example, some women are out of pocket if they chose to return to work due to the cost of childcare and will therefore never climb the ladder.

One of the biggest attractions of local government is the flexible working policies that are offered across the board. Ninety per cent of local authorities who responded to the LGA 2016/17 workforce survey allowed for flexible working where the role allowed for this. This is something that would be attractive to all employees, not only women who have additional responsibilities outside of work.

While local government has come a long way, there is still plenty more that can be done to increase gender diversity in senior leadership teams. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be a tick box exercise or something that you have to consciously consider, it should be something that is woven through the DNA of the organisation and is an inherent part of the decision-making process. In an ever changing world, where research shows the number of women sitting at the top table directly correlates with the success of the organisation, local government should be paving the way to make this the case.

I would be keen to hear the views from those currently in this position who are seeing the benefits of great practice or feel they are facing any barriers. Information on our women in leadership network is also available on our website

Anj Popat is a consultant – local government, executive interim at Penna