Article

Breaking through the glass ceiling
Claire Porter, The MJ, 16 March, 2017

On International Women’s Day this year, we celebrated the role of women in the local government workforce, and the importance of diversity in policy-making. We made three short films full of advice and experiences from women across the country, at all stages in their local government careers. We received incredible footage of reflection and advice from those who have reached the top and are paving the way for the generations that will follow them.

While the sector now has many women joining the workforce and moving up to upper levels of management, the vast majority of senior leaders and chief executives are still men – particularly in areas such as planning, infrastructure and highways.

When policies made by local government can have such a fundamental impact on an individual’s life chances as well as everyone’s day-to-day lives, it is crucial that those making policy truly understand the experiences of those on which they will impact.

Many of our places still show signs of design by men, with little consideration of the implications for women. Many places still don’t have enough street lighting to make them safe enough to use after dark and underpasses and poorly- designed areas are imposing and often unsafe – making many areas a no-go for women.

To stop situations like this occurring, we need to be better at understanding the needs of our whole population.

To do this, we must have more women reaching senior levels in councils. As many people in the films reflected, ensuring there is diversity in leadership and that policy is representative of the place it serves is the responsibility of everyone, regardless of gender. Workplaces must be open places where everyone is given the opportunity to shine.

Reducing hierarchy is helpful to this, as is ensuring that everyone – both men and women – have the opportunity to work flexibly and take into account caring responsibilities.

With less than 2% of men across the country taking the opportunity of shared parental leave, we need to eradicate the idea only women take time off to care for children and that doing so will damage their career.

One of the most effective ways of increasing the number of women in senior levels of local government is by providing mentoring, both formal and informal. Mentoring offers space to explore new ideas, seek advice and receive the support that is needed for everyone to gain confidence and not be afraid of trying new things and taking risks.

Mentoring is beneficial to everyone involved – it helps those who have been working in the same sector for longer to be open to new and exciting ideas, as well as providing encouragement to those at the start of their careers.

As Dr Wendy Thomson, managing director of Norfolk CC, tells us: ‘Only work for people who will make you sparkle, rather than hold your light under a bushel’.

The future is promising for women in local government, with the workplace changing from an old boys’ club to a much more open place that welcomes diversity and fresh ideas.

With so many women who want to make a difference to their communities paving the way for others, the future for women in local government looks bright.