Issue date: 22 June 2001

Women are still under-represented in the senior management of local government, prejudice against them still exists, and they have a harder time than their male colleagues. These were some of the findings of a new report by Bristol Business School entitled Room at the Top? A Study of Women Chief Executives in Local Government in England and Wales.

According to the report, capable women managers are being deterred from applying for top level jobs because of what they see as being the negative experiences of some women chief executives. In addition a significant number of women chief executives have left local government or were planning to do so

The year-long study of the experiences of women chief executives, of which there are 36 in England and Wales and predominantly based in the South, has highlighted the need for major change. The research - sponsored by leading organisations representing local government and specialists in equalities and recruitment - has produced powerful messages about the way in which local government is led and the way in which gendered cultures are inhibiting progress.

Sir Michael Lyons, Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council, said in the preface to the report: "The value of this study is not so much what it tells us about the differences between men and women, but what it tells us about Local Authorities themselves and some of the changes which have to be made if Councils are to become more flexible, more responsive, better at collaborating with their own communities and other agencies".

The report investigates recruitment and selection bias against women from some elected members; modernisation, organisational culture and change and leadership.

Action plan

The report provides a 14 point action plan, based on the findings. Its recommendations include:

- a commitment by local government to counter gender inequality in the same way it has tackled institutional racism;
- a consideration by individual local authorities of the issues raised by the research and what changes they need to make;
- planning of resources to enable re-visioning of the organisation through long-term processes of organisational change and learning;
- training for elected members on gender awareness and on good practice in recruitment and selection;
- a coherent strategy to be implemented on a partnership basis by the relevant agencies to deal with member bullying and harassment, with the Local Government Association playing a leading role;
- promotion of dialogue throughout local government in order to learn about gender and inequality: This should include the bringing of women chief executives together with senior and women middle managers, to enable the latter to learn from the experiences of the former and to challenge misconceptions that might exist.

Pam Fox, Visiting Fellow at Bristol Business School said: “Organisational cultures and orthodox or negative attitudes are the biggest barriers to women’s advancement in local government. Action is needed to develop more gender-sensitive local authorities. Local government leadership is still male-dominated and the adage ‘Think management, think male’ applies. Traditional views of leadership prevail and there’s a need to develop new models that capitalise on men’s and women’s talents. We present strong evidence to suggest that such views inhibit the ability of local authorities to respond to the modernisation agenda.

“Despite this, we were struck by how balanced women research participants were. They admitted that they were not omnipotent or invulnerable, and that their views were not the only ones. They talked about their experiences with humour and remained optimistic despite the fact that some of them had endured some fairly gruelling experiences.”

Mike Broussine, Principal Lecturer in Organisation Studies and co-author of the report adds: “The study reveals a discomfiting picture of institutionalised sexism in local government. However, there is a window of opportunity for beneficial change. The research provides a platform for real dialogue in local government. The more that the problems and opportunities for change are discussed, the better. Also, the fact that so many people and organisations supported this research demonstrates local government’s potential to change.

“It is important to emphasise that the picture is not all bad - some things are getting better. But local government still has a long way to go to counter sexism, and we hope our study will provide a catalyst for change.”

Mary-Ann Stephenson, a director at the Fawcett Society which campaigns for equality between women and men, said: “For far too long the lack of women in senior management roles was treated as a problem for individual women to deal with. It is vital to realise that it is a problem for the whole institution. Women face many barriers; often the hardest to deal with can be the attitudes of others, and the failure to realise how informal processes and networks can exclude women.

“If we are to have a local government that delivers for all, then we need a local government that can draw on the skills and abilities of all. This means recognising the institutional sexism that women face, and addressing it head on.”


A fuller release is available upon request, please email

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