Gender equality in local government - the way forward

Issue date: 28 July 2005

Issue date: 28/07/05

New research reveals good practice in promoting gender equality

Leadership, including the symbolic importance of women leaders, is pivotal to tackling gender inequality in Local Government reveals a new study by Bristol Business School, part of the University of the West of England

The study ‘Gender Isn’t an Issue’ – case studies of exemplary practice in promoting gender equality and diversity in local authorities, commissioned by The Employers’ Organisation for local government and sponsored by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE) and Society of Chief Personnel Officers (SOCPO), provides an insight into how councils can ensure that equality is taken seriously and that women have an equal chance of reaching the top and staying there.

The study involved in-depth case studies of good practice at five councils in England. It revealed that a range of leadership factors were key in achieving gender equality. These included the symbolic importance of the sex of the organisation’s leaders. The fact that there is a woman leader and/or chief executive, for example, held high significance for the organisation as a whole, and indeed the community. It was found that women managers and front line staff take heart from seeing women succeed, and as more women are represented in leadership positions throughout the organisation the momentum for change builds up

Good practice is also correlated with the behaviours of both female and male leaders. The consistency with which the group of organisational leaders – the chief executive, directors, the leader of the council, and elected members - espouse and enact values supporting equality and performance sends powerful explicit and subliminal messages through the organisation. Women managers and staff can notice appreciatively for example the male chief executive who makes a point of going home because he has child care responsibilities.

Another leadership factor, which can positively impact on the gender balance, is a need for a clear consensus between senior managers and powerful elected members about the importance that is attached to gender diversity and equality. Indeed the study data suggests that chief executives acting with a cohesive management team, cannot achieve the necessary culture change on their own, even though their transformational leadership capacities are a central feature of successful and lasting change. The case studies suggest that real change requires visible, personal and active commitment from the political leaders of the council working in tandem with managers.

The research also revealed that progress on gender and diversity was not best served by aggressive or confrontational approaches and tactics. Emphasis was instead placed on ‘people orientation’, ‘emotional intelligence’ and development and training.

Other factors that were identified as key factors in establishing gender equality included: the need for it to be culturally embedded in an organisation; encouragement of dialogue to address inequality and discrimination; a long term strategy for sustaining momentum with progress in this area; an outward looking and community-focussed mentality held at political, managerial and operational levels; and effective performance and change management.

Says Mike Broussine, Director of the Research Unit for Organisational Studies at Bristol Business School who was involved in the research: “The mere establishment of policies that encourage diversity is not enough in itself. Instead councils should aim to achieve an organisational culture in which gender and diversity is taken for granted at many levels in the organisation so that ‘gender is not an issue’.

“The study particularly eschews the common tendency to seek a set of generic competencies for leaders in local government and to stress the technical aspects of leadership roles.”

Adds co-author Pam Fox, a Visiting Fellow at Bristol Business School: “The study provides a number of key pointers to ensure further progression in the journey towards gender equality. These included: recognising that there is not a ready-made ‘tool-kit’ and the crucial role of effective leadership in culture change; encouraging critical review and dialogue; supporting staff, management and elected member development; and working on the remaining inequalities.”

Mandy Wright, Associate Director of the Employers' Organisation for local government, concluded: "The number of women occupying chief executive and chief officer positions in local government has been steadily increasing since 1991, but stands at 12% of Chief Executives and 24% of Chief Officers. The number of women councillors stands at 29%. Progress is slow, but the findings in this report will support and encourage councils to make full use of the potential of all employees. The aim should be to achieve an organisational culture in which gender and diversity is taken for granted, in a positive way, at all levels in the organisation."


• The five councils which took part in the case study-based research included Havant Borough Council, Gloucestershire County Council (Social Services Directorate), St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council, the London Borough of Brent and Bristol City Council.
• Copies of the executive summary are available from Mike Broussine at Bristol Business School. Please contact either Mike Broussine on 07967 367235/e-mail or Pam Fox on 0788 1502244.

For further information, please contact:
Chris Lawrance, Suzy Barnes or Becky Feltham on (0117) 9073400.

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