Who could have predicted Frank McAveety – he of the “dark and dusky” scandal – would find himself at the centre of a row over his attitude towards women when he took over as leader of Glasgow City Council? Well, almost anyone, really. Which is why you might have thought he’d be at pains to prove he was right behind Scottish Labour Party leader Kezia Dugdale’s commitment to increase female representation at local authority level.
So what has happened since he replaced Gordon Matheson in September? Well, there’s been one almighty power struggle and some very old-style politics. And recently his enthusiasm for gender equality has been questioned. First, he appeared to undermine chief executive Annemarie O’Donnell over a perceived lack of detail on budget cuts. Then, he and his allies came under fire for appointing Philip Braat – as opposed to a female councillor – to the vacant post of city treasurer; this despite the Labour group having recently passed a motion in support of the Women 50:50 campaign. What was the point in such a move, his critics asked, if – when the opportunity to improve the gender balance of Labour councillors on the executive committee from 30 to 40 per cent arose – it wasn’t taken?
The decision to appoint Braat has been defended with arguments familiar to anyone involved in campaigning for gender equality: McAveety has already increased the number of female labour councillors on the executive committee from one to three, Braat was the best person for the job, and trying to achieve a 50:50 balance on every committee could lead to women becoming “overloaded” (this last one from depute leader Archie Graham).
On one level, Graham’s logic is unassailable. If there are fewer female councillors then clearly there is a smaller pool from which to draw female committee members. But the answer to this isn’t to shrug your shoulders and keep on appointing men; it’s to ask yourself what can be done to change the situation. Progress is unlikely to be achieved by behaving in a way that could give the impression that power continues to lie with a macho clique and is open to criticism that positions like treasurer are being traded for support within an old boys’ network.
The problem of under-representation of women at local authority level is not confined to Glasgow. Since the 50:50 campaign was launched, most attention has been focused on Holyrood and the House of Commons. Having three women leaders – Nicola Sturgeon, Dugdale and Ruth Davidson – is a step forward, but the overall percentage of female MSPs (35 per cent) is less than impressive, though it may increase after May. Given a mere 19 of the 59 Scottish MPs are female, there is room for improvement at Westminster too.
But the situation in local authorities is even more acute. Just 24 per cent of Scotland’s councillors are women. Though 14 out of 32 local authorities have female chief executives, only five – Aberdeen, Stirling, east Dunbartonshire, Highland and Midlothian – have female council leaders, with the same proportion achieving levels of female representation of 30 per cent or more.
Gender imbalance matters in any democratic institution; elected bodies should reflect the make-up of the communities they serve. But it’s particularly important in local authorities because such a high proportion of their budgets – around 75 per cent – is spent on education and social care, services that employ and are used disproportionately by women.
There are manifold reasons why the prospect of being a councillor might be less than appealing to women. Many local authorities are still dominated by an old guard: men who have been councillors for decades and have worked their way up through the committees to key positions. Steeped in old-style politics, they are set in their ways. That’s an intimidating atmosphere for many women. And even if they stand and are elected, the stasis within councils may make it difficult for them to find their way on to committees.
Councillors’ working hours can be long and inflexible and the financial rewards limited (less than £17,000 for an ordinary councillor), an obstacle for those with childcare costs to consider.
On top of all this, local government has an image problem; being a councillor lacks the glamour and status of being an MSP or MP, particularly at a time when local authority budgets and powers are being curtailed.
With vision and determination, these problems are not insurmountable. One way to stimulate change might be to place limits on the amount of time an individual councillor could serve on a particular committee or as council leader, freeing up space for new faces.
More political parties could introduce all-women short-lists and those which already have them could use them more consistently and effectively. Despite banging the drum on all-women shortlists only 23 per cent of Labour candidates in the 2012 council elections were female. Local authorities could create on-site creches, and make sure no decisions are taken after 5:30pm. And they could focus more on training and development for inexperienced female councillors so that – when a role such as treasurer becomes vacant – they are able and willing to put themselves forward.
Most importantly, though, local authorities need to educate the public about the value of what they do. If there was a greater understanding of the way councillors’ decisions impact on ordinary lives, a wider range of people would surely want to be involved.
In Glasgow, McAveety has so far failed to demonstrate an appreciation of the scale of the cultural shift that needs to occur if the council is to become gender-balanced, or to proffer a convincing strategy as to how this could be achieved. Of course, the problem may be taken out of his hands if the SNP wins a majority in 2017 and Susan Aitken takes over as leader.
Given Holyrood currently lacks the power to bring in legal quotas, progress on gender equality in councils relies on the goodwill of those at the helm. Unless they are willing to adopt processes that will attract and support women, statements about gender equality are no more than empty rhetoric.