Kick-off for International Women’s Day at NLGN

March 5, 2019   By Sarah Lawson, Policy Researcher, NLGN

With NLGN’s International Women’s Day event just around the corner, I’m taking the opportunity to weave together three of my favourite things: local gov, football and inspirational women.

At first glance the links might seem tangential, but there’s perhaps more in common than first meets the eye. While women continue to rise through the ranks across sectors – from the football pitch to the council chamber – when it comes to gender equality, both areas have been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. In Parliament Vicky Foxcroft MP recently challenged the huge discrepancy in prize money between the women’s and men’s FA cup; the £25,000 awarded to the winning women’s side compared to the £3.6 million awarded to the men. Meanwhile, the LGC has highlighted stalling progress in aspects of gender equality in local government leadership. Just over a third of county and unitary authority chief executives are women.

There’s clearly more work to do to build a level playing field. Even so, 1.7 million women and girls are now playing football and newly appointed council female chief executives are averaging a salary slightly higher than male appointees. So, what are some of the shared secrets behind these stories of progress?

Starting local
While important legislation such as the Equal Pay Act has paved the way for greater gender equality, the initial drive for change often starts local. In 2017, Lewes FC became the first UK football club to operate full gender equality, with a shared stadium, facilities and identical budgets. In local government, changes such as maternity and paternity pay for councillors have been led by local example. For instance, new maternity pay deals have been developed by local authorities such as Birmingham City Council after councillors highlighted and acted upon inequalities, rather than central direction or legislation. In 2017, the Fawcett Society reported that just four per cent of councils in England and Wales had a formal parental leave policy for councillors.

Strong women (and men)
These local examples of change haven’t happened by accident. Strong leadership from women and men alike is an essential enabler. In the case of Birmingham’s introduction of councillor maternity pay, women such as Cllr Brigid Jones have voiced the need for change, with cross-party support. For example, Conservative Cllr Debbie Clancy highlighted that “it is not only the right thing to do, we also know that better parental leave is good for us as employers too…it improves staff retention, keeping skills and knowledge in the organisation and also helps to attract new talent.” Meanwhile, award-winning councils such as Wigan and Doncaster have been transformed by innovative and fresh leadership from inspiring women.

In the footballing world, things have come a long way since the FA banned women from playing on their pitches, stating that “football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Strong women, from 1920s legend, Lily Parr, to assistant referee Sian Massey-Ellis are at the forefront of this change. Equally impressive are the men who are supporting such change. The Board of Directors at Lewes FC, many of whom are men, are leading the way in lobbying the FA for equality for the women’s game.

Challenging discrimination
While the direction of travel is positive, women continue to endure discrimination. Reports of sexist discrimination and harassment in women’s football are up 400 per cent, while Simon Kelner claimed during last year’s world cup that “TV bosses sought to have women on the panel for reason of appearance rather than to satisfy a latent demand to have their opinions.” Impressive women across the sporting world are making their voices heard on challenging this issue. In local government too, female chiefs are highlighting the significant issues of discrimination and misogyny. Recently, Donna Hall spoke openly about vicious instances of bullying. In response, Editor of LGC Nick Golding was right when he said: “when Ms Hall recounted her experience to me … I was struck by two things. Firstly, respect for her courage in speaking out about her ordeal. Secondly, bafflement that this is still happening in 2019, not 50 years ago.”

There is clearly much more to be done and many future goals to score, but there’s also no shortage of inspirational women who are leading change. On 8th March – International Women’s Day – NLGN are looking forward to kicking-off discussions with 200 such women from local government.

This blog is in the lead up to our International Women’s Day event on Friday 8th March, kindly sponsored by EY

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