Sarah Hayward: women have come a long way in London local politics, but there’s still a long way to go

by Sarah Hayward

Sarah Hayward is a Labour councillor in Camden and was council leader from 2012 until April last year. She is a dedicated campaigner for gender equality in politics. This is her first piece for On London and, I hope, not her last. You can follow Sarah on Twitter

This week marks the 100th anniversary of women first getting the vote. But as we celebrate that milestone on the journey to political equality, it’s also important to reflect on how far there is still to go.

We often measure our journey by the number of women MPs or the number of women round the national government cabinet table. But local government is often ignored. And because it’s ignored, women have much further to go in town halls and city halls to achieve political equality with men. London is no exception.

This great cosmopolitan city that celebrates its diversity and the many opportunities it offers has a pretty poor record when it comes to women and political power.

There was never a woman leader of the old London County Council or the Greater London Council that succeeded it. All three London Mayors so far have been men. There are currently nine female leaders of London boroughs: Georgia Gould in Camden, Teresa O’Neill in Bexley, Denise Hyland in Greenwich, the inspirational Claire Kober in Haringey, Elizabeth Campbell in Kensington and Chelsea, Lib Peck in Lambeth, Ruth Dombey in Sutton, Clare Coghill in Waltham Forest and Nickie Aitken in Westminster. It is, perhaps, telling that this number might be seen as encouragingly high by historical standards. And yet, of course, it is just nine out of 32 London boroughs in all, six of which have never had a woman leader since their creation over 50 years ago.

Too few women are breaking through to the very top, but the problem isn’t only about the very biggest London borough jobs. Few council cabinets comprise 50% or more women. Important positions, such as chairing key council scrutiny committees, are less likely to be held by women than by men.

All political parties are at fault and although all of London’s parties do better than they do elsewhere in the country, with three quarters of our borough leaders being men surely it is time to try to work out what more we can do.

London’s councillors are demographically different from the rest of country in several ways, in that they are not only more female more ethnically diverse and younger too. That youthfulness of the capital’s councillor base is both a blessing and a curse. It means we’re more representative of the general population by age than local politicians in other parts of the country, but it also means that many of our most promising woman councillors have a lot of competing pressures to balance and reconcile.

At the same time as trying to make progress up the career ladder they may be trying to decide whether they want to have children and when. They have to ask themselves whether their work as a councillor will inhibit plans to travel or broaden their experience in other ways. These pressures can be felt by men too, but usually not as keenly. And, of course, it won’t only be politics where women face these issues or suffer discrimination. It’s likely that whatever field they are working in there will be gender-based barriers. Breaking through in both politics and your career outside is doubly difficult.

For those women who do make it to the top there are unique pressures. Some of these are faced by all political women in London and some are more specific to being a leader. But every woman in any kind of political authority will be able to tell you stories of how they’ve been undermined, discriminated against and abused solely due to their gender. These will vary from insidious, low level experiences like feeling the need to seek approval from the men in the room, even when it’s your decision as leader, to the more obvious and outright sinister. When I was leader of Camden, a senior government official used to wink at me in meetings. Woman politicians face threats of sexual violence. Men do not have to put up with such things.

Our national politics and national media tend to be London-centric. This means that London’s councils tend to be more in the spotlight than counterparts elsewhere in the country. This can be both positive and negative. A Conservative national cabinet minister once did a skit at a Camden Conservative fundraiser based on a character assassination of me.

Criticism is part of the rough and tumble of politics, but nowadays it will often be followed up by other people attacking you on social media. While men and women alike face this, attacks on women in the public eye will frequently be gender based with everything from “get back in the kitchen” (yes, people do still say that to women in 2018), to vile, sexually explicit threats. We can all do more by reporting these incidents and defending women in the public eye when they’re attacked in that way.

The pressures women face in politics are unique but they’re not insurmountable. There are some simple things we can all do to support women to take the political power we deserve. We can encourage them to get involved and defend and support them when things get tough. You don’t need to be in the world of politics to help. If you work for any organisation, whether a charity or a school to a business improvement district or anything in between, check whether your governing body is representative in terms of the number of women involved. There’s really no excuse for it not to be 50/50 (and representative in other ways too). If it’s not, ask yourself why that is and take steps to change it.

For councils themselves, too few have good childcare and maternity policies for councillors, and women can be forced to give up cabinet posts or committee chairs as a result. This is unacceptable in 2018. It’s also easy for all party groups, whether ruling or in opposition, to adopt protocols to address issues of under representation, either by designating a number of posts for women or even having rules in meetings about women and men speaking in equal numbers.

My final plea is for all political parties to do more for women in local government. The main ones are great at training women for Westminster, but local government leaders can have a more immediate impact on the day-to-day lives of our citizens. On the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote, we should celebrate just how far we’ve come. But there is still a long, long way to go before women have political parity with men. If we act together we can make sure it doesn’t take another 100 years to achieve it.

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