It is true that instead of being a hierarchical old boys’ club in the same way as many industries, local government has become significantly more open and approachable, reducing hierarchy and making a greater effort to reflect the community it serves.
For International Women’s Day this year, the New Local Government Network created a series of three short films to look at the role of women in leadership in local government. The enthusiastic responses and inspiring footage we received, filled with experience and advice for those aiming to reach the upper levels of local government management, show how crucial an issue this is.
Much of the advice that came from the inspirational chief executives who we spoke to focused on mentoring and networks. The overwhelming impression that came across was the desire from women who have reached the top to do everything to support other women; local government is not one of those sectors where the ladder is pulled up behind those who succeed. Forming a network gives not just the support and confidence that everyone needs to be able to succeed, but also gives that much needed sounding board for ideas and advice.
Of course the changes that we need cannot happen without also having the by-in of the male managers that currently make up the majority of chief executives and senior leaders in local government. As Chris Naylor, chief executive of Barking & Dagenham LBC puts it in our films: “This is everyone’s responsibility.” It is for everyone in a leadership position to understand the importance of diversity in policy making; without this we do not create policy that is reflective of the area that it impacts.
Having a modernised workforce seems to go hand in hand with rising levels of women in management. James Blake, chief executive of St Albans City and DC reflected on how moving to a much more open workforce, with a reduced hierarchy had naturally led to just over a majority of senior managers being women. Wendy Thomson, managing director of Norfolk CC showed this from the other side, saying that women should “only work for people who will make you sparkle, rather than hold your light under a bushel”.
The women we spoke to at the start of their careers had found local government to be a welcoming and supportive place where they were certain they could thrive. This certainly gives hope for the future, with so many bright and passionate women rising through the levels of management, alongside the women already leading and inspiring from the top, that one day in the near future, our policy makers will be entirely representative of the places that they influence.