Women in Public Life

As I write this, I am aware of the huge advances there have been in relation to the presence of women in public life. When I think of the senior positions in our Universities, police and other public services, we have female Vice Chancellors, Chief Constables and Chief Executives. Many of our politicians are female too at local, national and European levels. Women are also prominent on the boards of public organisations. It is not uncommon for women to be part of public and media debates and discussions and often, for them to lead these.

This is a positive picture. So it should be. In 2014, we expect females to be prominent in public life. Why wouldn’t they?

Whilst the picture is a positive one, the presence of women in public life continues to be an on-going concern. A recent report published by the Fawcett Society, titled ‘Sex and Power 2013, Who Runs Britain? http://fawcettsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Sex-and-Power-2013-FINAL-REPORT.pdf draws attention to how little progress has been made. The key finding of this report is that “Britain is falling down the global league tables when it comes to women’s access to power and representation in politics and public life more generally”. Figures are presented about the low proportion of females in a range of careers across the public, private and voluntary sectors. An important issue highlighted in this report is that the proportion of females in public roles has actually decreased over the last decade. The report recommends that politicians take steps including ‘positive discrimination’ to ensure an increase in female politicians.

In relation to Wales, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently published its report ‘Who Runs Wales’ http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/Wales/WRW_2014/wrw_2014_english.pdf.

Reviewing the position of women today with ten years ago, it highlights what it calls ‘the lost decade’ in the promotion of females into key roles in society. Key findings indicate that only 27% of Councillors in Wales are women; none of the eight Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables in Wales are women and of the top 100 companies in Wales, only 2% have female chief executives. There are fewer women now in the Cabinet in Wales than a decade ago and also fewer female Assembly Members. In 2003, the National Assembly had a gender balance of 50% men and 50% women, and today this is 58% men and 42% women.

There is currently a lot of focus in Wales and elsewhere in the UK about the presence of women in public life, in particular about the need to recruit women on to the boards of many organizations and to promote their presence as political leaders. In England, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has asked the Equalities and Human Rights Commission this week to advise him on the legality of all-female shortlists for top City jobs as part of the coalition’s drive to get more women on to the boards of major companies http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/mar/04/vince-cable-considers-female-only-shortlists-city-jobs. In Wales, the publication of the expert advisory group’s report on diversity in democracy in Wales calls for all of the political parties to introduce a new target of 40% female candidates in winnable seats at the next local council elections in a bid to improve representation http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/too-many-straight-white-men-6772571. Both of these reports, published in the lead up to International Women’s Day, are significant and provide a powerful narrative on the continued under-representation of women in public life.

So, the picture for women in public life is a positive one but it is not has favourable as it could be. The above reports will lead to a discussion about the introduction of targets. Targets may be what is required – but please don’t put women into positions just because they are women. If we could always put the best people forward, the most talented, the most qualified, the most able, this way we will have the best people in public life. What might be needed is a little more encouragement and confidence building, not just for women but for all under-represented groups. There certainly needs to be a greater awareness of the existing position. To quote from the Wales report about elected local officials in Wales, “too many are straight, white men in their 60s”. Getting in a wider range of talent is certainly what is required. There is certainly some way to go.

Catherine Farrell
Twitter – @catherinefarre

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One Response to Women in Public Life

  1. Paul Griffiths says:

    I am happy to accept that I am part of the problem described having been elected to RCT Council in 2012 and being male, straight and over 60.

    There is a parallel problem that also deserves attention. Forty years ago a significant number of local councillors were in employment. Their employers were often nationalised industries, banks, global manufacturing companies and they all regarded support for their employees in public services as part of their role. Nowadays it is almost impossible to find employers who will support their employees becoming councillors. My fear is that we will see as a result an increasing age profile for councillors which the increased allowances will have done little to address. The result will be a political culture in which active participation becomes an ever more deviant activity

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