Why so few women councillors?

This year is the centenary of legislation which stated that women should not  be disqualified by sex or marriage for election as a councillor. Yet after 100 years, there are only 29% of women councillors, with only 14% serving as women council leaders last year.

We are reminded of this by Baroness Shephard in today’s Eastern Daily Press (no link) who welcomes the government’s council commission to increase diversity of local government councils, hoping it will focus on the special needs of women with caring responsibilities.

I can understand that women MPs are faced with the immense pressure of juggling motherhood and spending most of the week away from home.  But councillors don’t have that difficulty, and their contribution as elected members can make a valuable and immense difference to the decisions that affect every day lives in the community.

If they need any inspiration, they should spare a thought for these courageous women in Iran who have been jailed for peacefully demonstrating for equality. Yet this is something our women fought for and won a century ago.

Human Rights Watch is urging Iran to respect the women’s campaign to bring social and legal equality between men and women. Their fight and suffering sounds very similar to that of the American suffragettes in the harrowing film I saw this week.  

I must admit I was amazed to learn that there are so few women councillors. At the end of the day, it may come down to the practicalities of taking on a huge commitment, or they are simply not interested in doing the job. At least they have the freedom of choice, but let’s hope more can be persuaded to  boost the figure to at least 40% within the next decade.

Hat tip Freebornjohn for the Iranian link, a fellow Cambridgeshire blogger.


  1. Newmania, I think people can make their minds up about a candidate without stooping to making the kind of unacceptable comments that Nich mentioned, as well as others highlighted by Joe. Just keep questioning other councillors about their weak policies and poor performance and the flaws will shine through and you can attack on that level – surely much more effective.

  2. ELLEE SAID-Joe, Thank you. I certainly abhor personal attacks, they are only made when someone feels insecure and has no intelligent debate.

    I disagree I think the ad hominem offensive is perfectly valid .Take Ken Livingtone . Yes he has wasted money and so on but noone really believes the Conservatives would do a vastly better job.

    On the other hand his poltical views which are largely irrelevant to his role are odious as is he personally.

    I feel the proffessional of expert role of the plitician is overly emphasised .The scaremental function is also important and I will continue to personally attack people when I think it is merited.Including bloggers ..I wish people would stop being so offended by real debate which very often is personal if convictions are involved

    Politicians and indeed all of us are what we are but we also represent things in our lives and the way we chcoose to portray ourselves.
    This meta language is in a way more important that the actual manifesto and David Cameron above all understands that.

  3. Ellee, I agree.
    Expect the next election to be dirty.

  4. Joe, Thank you. I certainly abhor personal attacks, they are only made when someone feels insecure and has no intelligent debate.

    Bedd, Thanks for your vote of confidence in the fairer sex. I know we are made of sturdy stuff, perhaps too sturdy for our male counterparts.

  5. Bedd Gelert

    Councillors are generally thick, ill-educated, self-serving imbeciles and are doing the job because they aren’t effective enough to get a proper job.

    Women are generally intelligent, well-educated, witty and wise, community-oriented people who are very busy because those skills are much in demand.

    And they are probably doing the ironing of a bloke who is too bloody lazy to do his own.

    So, as the yanks might say, ‘Go figure’…


  6. That would be David Evans at Welwyn Hatfield. Surely not as distasteful as Dr Adrian Rogers at Exeter calling his opponent ‘Bent Ben’?
    In an election when every student I knew was voting Labour,things like that made it quite hard to explain why I was voting Tory.
    Now the reverse is true. Most of my friends are quite with the Tories now.

  7. Nich, Of course it should be the “best person”, not just the “best woman”, your figure for North Norfolk is certainly much higher than the national average. And those remarks you mentioned in your last paragraph are very distasteful.

  8. We have always have had a policy of “the best person”, not “the best woman”. Has that meant less women ? No. Indeed it seems to have made women come forward knowing that they will be taken seriously. Of the new councillor elected in 2003 with me on to North Norfolk DC, more than half were women, and they make up 13 of our 30 councillor group. I also understand that of new candidates selected, an even higher proportion are women this year.

    Of course, the test is not just how many are selected but how many are elected. you have to remember that people have used very “low” tactics when campaigning against women. I remember certain Tories in the Essex/Herts area in 1997 asking why Labour PPC’s were not looking after their children. I also rememeber one Tory MP who lost his seat referring to a woman and her three bastard children.

  9. I don’t read a lot on women’s rights Ellee, but I have read Mill. He isn’t my favourite thinker by any means, but he isn’t my least favourite either. Vindication of the Rights of Women is one of his better works and one I often quote in arguing for total female liberation.

  10. I am amazed too, Ellee, that the numbers of women councillors are so low. I saw the report about the Iranian women and they are so brave. I agree with Heather that it may not be a gender matter, though: the British notoriously vote differently in local elections to the way they do in general elections and maybe not enough people realise how important their local councils are – until they need them, that is.

  11. I have to come down on the not-interested-in-gender side. All I want is what is best for the country and that is more Tory Councillors; XX, XY ,XXY, whatever.

  12. Ian, Your figure is around the same as the national average then and yes, it is absolutely right what you and Heather say about egos.

    Joe, That must have been a couple of weeks ago. I am not familiar with J.S. Mills, do you really read books on women\’s rights?

  13. Bit of detective work, for you Ellee. Check the back posts on Miss Smack. (Hell, I even responded to one of your comments, tacitly conceding the point) You’ll recognise me.
    Since I agree with your point, there’s no point in telling everyone.
    Anyway, I have succeeded in getting into the 30″ waist trousers I bought to encourage me to slim into them, so I best be off.
    Incidently, your Second Life post quite inspired me- though not with admiration for Second Life.
    Have you read JS Mills Vindication of the Rights of Women? It’s worth a read if you haven’t. One of his better writings.

  14. I’m a Town councillor, which is the same as a Parish one. I’m with Heather all the way. I sometimes wish that someone wanting to be a Councillor was automatic grounds for disqualification as far too often self-selection is for the wrong reasons, namely ego or party politics.

    I don’t think it is a gender issue at all and positive discrimination is just as insulting as the unpleasant kind.

    We currently have seven out of 24 (and the Town Clerk) although I had to look at the website to check as I have never actually been bothered about it before and I don’t think anyone else does. We used to have nine so that was more than a third.

    The capabilities of the ladies are just as wide ranging as the men- from chocolate teapot to major asset.

  15. Joe, I think it is best if you stick to the name we know you as, but, out of interest, what is your other name so we can recognise you on other blogs. Changing it would confuse me, as well as E-K.

  16. I know nothing about her yet actually , Ellee. I only spoke to her for the first time yesterday.
    The Municipal Corporations Act 1882 gave women the vote in boroughs, but it was the high court who ruled at some point in Asquith’s administration that they could serve on such bodies. When Emmeline Pankhurst was chaining herself to railings women could vote for – and sit on – most elected bodies aside from Parliament.
    It’s not much of a colouring, just a hint of copper to stop it being dull brown. As I think I have told you, I am very vain.
    I’ve just realised you are one of only three blogs where I still comment under my own name and not my blogging name. I wonder if I should move to a consistent policy on the subject, or would that confuse people?
    It would confuse E-K, I guess.

  17. Masybe it’s the sort of position that few women want. If it were more female-oriented, perhaps there would be a difference in how they were run?

  18. Joe, You will have lots of news to tell your friend this evening. And I had no idea about the Mayoress from Suffolk, she must have been a very special woman. Interesting that you dye your hair too, it’s no big deal these days.

  19. Irony of ironies Ellee.
    But I’ll comment on your first, it’s only polite.
    The first female Mayor in this country was the Mayoress of Beccles, I believe. If not Beccles it was Aldeburgh, iknow it was one of the Suffolk boroughs. And it was way before woman got the parliamentary franchise.
    The Tories have more female councillors because they have more councillors. I think we have to bear in mind that councils are very managerial institutions, very much like Boards of Directors, rather than like mini-parliaments. Such an environment is still likely to be more conducive to males. When I was a Tory party member, most of the councillors were of that ilk in my area.
    i have died my hair for yours, by the way, I don’t like my natural colour.
    The irony by the way, is hat the girl I am meeting tonight is part Iranian.

  20. Q9, Thanks, I also heard the lighbults mentioned on the news this evening, Angela Merkel was saying she had some at home, that they were too dim and wished they could be brighter – just what I said.

    The sex of a councillor is irrelevant really, what really counts is whether people can make the commitment and are dedicated to improving the quality of life and facilities for their community, helping local people with various problems. It is probably a thankless job too and involves lots of tough decision making.

  21. Quasar9

    Hi Elle, on the previous post on lightbulbs.
    Seems the EU aims to ‘outlaw’ old lightbulbs within five years – so if you can only buy energy efficient lightbulbs, then all bulbs will be replaced – and prices should come down as sales increase … maybe!

    Michelle T, why will more women in politics be a ‘good’ thing – if they are going to behave no different to men. Thatcher was itching for a war – because it increased her poll ratings?

    I have no problem with women being Councillors or MPs or even PMs – but there is no significant ‘benefit’ to having a woman Councillor, MP, PM or President – if they are going to behave just as ‘macho’

    And no matter how equal we’d like to oretend to be, we are physically different, men still cannot give birth.

  22. Heather, Parish councils do tend to attract older people and maybe you should consider standing at a district or county level and work on broader issues instead of the dull parochial stuff. I think you would make an excellent councillor.

  23. Justin, a lot of men dye their hair these days, including my husband.

  24. I’m not convinced this is really even a gender issue. What seems to be lacking to me are the right people as councillors. We need more people who are genuinely interested in their local area, not simply seeing this as the first step on a political career ladder or because it gives them local status (especially as when they are older).

    Maybe it is the way in which councils work that puts people off – as well as the point made earlier about such responsibilities bringing with them public abuse. I would consider getting involved in my local parish council, but it seems like a load of old people holding very boring meetings, taking up time and not achieving a great deal. Probably a really unfair view, but I don’t feel inclined to find out.

  25. Silver-tongued? More like silver-haired (when it isn’t dyed). Meow!

  26. I agree with some of what David Allen says. Confidence in women can be mistaken for arrogance. Arrogance in men can be admired somehow. Do you agree? Not so much in women though. Now then I suppose that I should also speak up to say that if ever I found myself “politicised” that it would be, cough, possibly for the “other lot” as you may put it…:)

  27. Newmania, I think David was saying that you need thick skin to cope with political life, and I agree with that. It comes with confidence, self-belief and intelligence. Maybe one day I will stand as a councillor, it would be an honour to an elected representative for my community. Basically, I am quite shy and feel more comfortable helping other people succeed in this area.

  28. ..and where the atmosphere is harsh and adversarial-SAID DAVID ALLEN

    …and why does delightful silver tongued David get off so lightly .Isn`t he saying exactly the same thing. ?

  29. Oh come on thats bit harsh isn`t it ? I did say I have never noticed a lack of aggresssion myself.
    Thanks “right on” Justin ,(teachers pet) !What Patrick Mercer said was true by the way but Ellee ,you tell us . Why don`t you stand for the Coucil? That surely is the best place to start. You are interested in Politics and seem to be concerned about this and that ?

    Or any other women ; What is stopping you ?

  30. It does seem that for some reason fewer women than men have persued a career within the political sphere. I think this is changing, and in my view this can only be a good thing. Interesting post Ellee – thanks for it.

  31. Justin, I was just replying along the same lines to Newmania when you pipped in, I always thought women councillors in Cambs were well represented, but maybe that is not the case in other parts of the country.

  32. What a sexist post, Mr. N. Look where such comments landed Patrick Mercer! Did you know, Ellee, that we have more female councillors than Labour and the Dim Lubs combined?

  33. David Allen

    I can’t think that any party in the UK now puts obstacles in the way of women becoming councillors. In fact, I think many bend over backwards to progress the careers of any women who show an interest. It isn’t that they are being obstructed, it is that they are not choosing to put themselves forward. Why? I suspect it is because women tend to be much more concerned than men about what other people think of them, they want to be liked and are more sensitive to criticism and prefer consensus. Men tend to be much more confident/ arrogant (?) and to brush off criticism without becoming hurt by it. (These are of course generalisations, but they hold true at a population level.) This matters because politicians are generally despised by the public. Even at the council level, it is widely felt by many people that ‘they’re all in it for themselves’. Also, in politics, you have to be prepared to face harsh criticism of your motives, and performance from the media and public, all your failures are public, there is no ‘HR’ department to look after your interests, you can be slung out at any time (no verbal or written warning or exit counselling). This all holds true of council politics as well as Westminster. Most women just would not want to willingly enter a career which will make them a pariah in the eyes of many and where the atmosphere is harsh and adversarial.

  34. That is interssting isn`t it because women are I may ways better placed to be councillors than men. They often have the time on their hands and its very far from a full time job.

    Having stood for the Council I wonder if some women are intimidated by the hustings and hurly burly of it… There is quite chesty atmosphere and perhaops it difficult for women to be as aggressive as is required

    (Can`t say I `ve ever noticed it myself)

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