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‘It’s nasty and it’s bullying’: sexism and the council

As with most local authorities, Bristol’s councillors are mostly male – and some bad attitudes have been surfacing of late. What can be done to level the gender playing field?

Edition 6

As with most local authorities, Bristol’s councillors are mostly male – and some bad attitudes have been surfacing of late. What can be done to level the gender playing field?

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(Design: Holly Atherton)

I meet Councillor Ani Stafford-Townsend, leader of the Greens within Bristol council, the day after ‘chair-gate’ erupts during a planning meeting. Conservative councillor Richard Eddy’s refusal to call Stafford-Townsend ‘chair’ as requested – rather than ‘chairman’ – sparks a public argument.

According to Stafford-Townsend, this is part of a pattern of subtle yet “nasty and bullying” sexism from certain elected members, in which women councillors may be overlooked in committee meetings, or receive snide comments about their appearances rather than the quality of their work.

Eddy, who’s no stranger to controversy – he resigned as Conservative group deputy leader in 2001 after displaying a golliwog in council offices – begs to differ.

“In politics one expects opponents to attack what you say,” he says of ‘chair-gate’. “Ideally [that’s] because of differences of belief, but sadly [it’s] often out of spite, which in my opinion prompted this Green-manufactured ‘angst’.”

Bristol Councillors’ Gender in numbers by party06-sexism-graph

Source: Bristol City Council website

Council Seats of Which Men and Women Total


Tip of an iceberg?

‘Chair-gate’ may have been hijacked for political capital, but it highlights the issue of sexism in local government. A 2014 Fawcett Society report documents three councillor resignations nationally the previous year because of sexist behaviour, warning they may only be the “tip of the iceberg”. Research shows sexism prevents women running for office; it’s both a cause and an effect of male-dominated councils.

Furthermore, councillors are overwhelmingly white, with an average age of 60. This lack of diversity affects democracy and in whose interests decisions are made. Councils handle a quarter of government spending and are implementing drastic cuts, which disproportionately affect women. Women occupy only 32% of council seats nationally, 36% in Bristol (up from 30% in 2013, a jump partly down to incoming female Greens). Just 12% of UK council leaders are women.

There’s not room here to examine all the reasons for this, or the resilience of institutions to change. There are practical barriers in terms of pay, which is too low to cover childcare for working parents, and unsociable hours, which similarly hit parents and carers. There’s no parental leave or maternity pay. And while the role is officially part-time, many councillors put in many more hours, affecting their earning ability.

There’ve been small gains here, such as the recently announced job-share of an assistant mayor position by working mothers, Daniella Radice and Fi Hants. According to Mayor George Ferguson, the arrangement

“will help demonstrate that working mothers play an equal role in our workplace, [which] should be flexible to their needs”.

But for councillors on lower rungs, flexibility is harder to find. Only councils have the power to implement systemic changes, which require serious political will – a scarce resource while councillors remain overworked, underpaid, predominantly male and accountable to constituents who may not see the benefit of investing council time and money in them.

Women’s representation on the council in Bristol

National Average:

2013 – 32%


2003 – 33%
2010 – 28.6%
2011 – 24.3%
2012 – no elections
2013 – 28.6%
2014 – 30%
2015 – 36%

Source: Bristol Women’s Commission
Source: LGA, National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2013

Unique opportunity

From the outside, Bristol has a unique initiative to redress the balance: the 50:50 Campaign, run by the ‘Task Group on Representation in Public Life’* from Bristol Women’s Commission, which was set up by Ferguson in 2011. The group aims for 50% female representation on the council from 2016.

The campaign has a two-pronged approach: persuading political parties to field more female candidates in winnable seats and encouraging women to consider standing as councillors via events, mentoring and publicity. It’s based on a detailed analysis and review of what’s known about discrimination and inequality of opportunity in politics. Evidence points to ‘unconscious bias’ at work among both men and women in selection processes that favour men.

Some political parties perform well statistically, such as the evenly split Greens and Labour, others less so. The Conservatives fare worst, with two women out of 16 seats.

“The [50:50] campaign is arbitrary,” says Conservative group leader Mark Weston. “We prefer positive action to positive discrimination; [our] candidates are chosen purely on merit.”

This argument doesn’t wash with 50:50. A statement provided to the Cable says:

“We doubt the Conservatives would agree that when men made up 100% of Bristol’s councillors this was because women had no merit.”

The lack of councillor diversity can be seen as indicating a democratic deficit in our political systems requiring urgent action. Alternatively, it’s an unfortunate statistic that may gradually change. This seems to be the crux of the divide between Greens and the Conservatives and, with local elections on the horizon in 2016, agreement remains elusive.

Focusing on how gender diversity can be improved – say through ‘positive discrimination’ – shouldn’t distract from why there’s an existing imbalance. The alleged sexist behaviour and attitudes of unnamed councillors doesn’t look like it’s going away given the current make-up of council, according to Stafford-Townsend. “What you need is a deep change of attitude and that’s not realistically going to happen… You can send ‘them’ to all the equalities training in the world, but they’ll still be the same.” What, then, should be done? “Throw them out,” she says.

*The group includes Penny Gane, Chair of Bristol Women’s Voice and Bristol Women’s Commission, UWE’s Dr. Helen Mott, Councillor Daniella Radice, VOSCUR Chief Executive Wendy Stephenson and Bristol Women’s Voice’s Diane Bunyan.

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