Diversity challenge

Improving the representation of women at the top of local government has proven painfully slow – and a recent report even warned that sexism remains “commonplace” in town halls. What needs to change? Jody Goldsworthy, senior partner at public sector executive recruitment firm GatenbySanderson, takes a look.

IT'S no secret that local government has a diversity challenge. Prior to the 2017 local elections, only four of the 16 directly elected mayors in England and Wales were female, and the recent election has only increased the number of white, male political representatives. Clearly, local authorities can do very little to influence the diversity of political candidates – but it does underline a wider disappointing trend.

A recent report from the Fawcett Society found that while 78% of local government employees in England and Wales are women, when it gets to senior positions, female representation rapidly declines. Just 24% of council chief executives were women, and the average proportion of women in the top 5% of earners in councils was only 43%.

While most will acknowledge the challenge for improving diversity amongst elected politicians, progress for improving female representation at senior level in local government also needs greater focus. The IPPR states that part of the problem is down to so-called “supply side barriers” - namely that women are less likely to have the self-confidence to put themselves forward. Rightly or wrongly, they may also be held back by greater caring responsibilities compared to men.

To successfully achieve organisational change, senior leaders must be more mindful of this issue. It is vital that local authorities take charge to push for and facilitate diversity, as well as encourage more females to apply for leadership roles. But how do local government organisations initiate such change?

Implement a new model for leadership

Jody Goldsworthy, GatenbySandersonThe key priorities of local government are shifting radically. Whether in response to political change, economic circumstances or even social trends, the situation facing local government leaders is unrecognisable to what it was even five years ago. While community leadership remains the core purpose, the key delivery mechanisms and priorities have shifted to reflect broader economic challenges, redrawn geographic partnerships, new constituencies and the social landscape.

These new priorities bring a desire to change how local government organisations are run and create the perfect opportunity to tackle the diversity challenge. A survey of 144 HR directors within local government in England, conducted by GatenbySanderson, found that 60% of those questioned believe a new style of leadership is required to help them provide a better quality service and adapt to constant changes.

To successfully unearth leaders who are not only diverse but also have the skills and capabilities to address the pressures of new strategic plans, councils need to really examine the skills gaps within their organisation and create a new model for leadership. Only when the link between skills and strategy is firmly embedded will councils be confident that their skills searches are accelerating them towards a diverse workforce that is capable of tackling service delivery challenges, overseeing digital transformation, improving citizen engagement, boosting productivity and delivering cost savings in the face of budget deficits.

Embrace new ideas

Crucially, local authorities need to stop relying on old methods of recruitment and embrace new ideas. To address the myriad of challenges they face, councils need a more modern approach. Innovation is driven by new ideas and different perspectives, which can only be achieved with a diverse range of decision-makers. Town halls must give much more than just a nod to increasing workforce diversity in recruitment processes, and address this issue with action.

Leaders from outside the sector, despite bringing many new skills, may lack deep knowledge of the sector – but this can be learned. Removing conscious and unconscious bias from talent processes will allow new ideas and a fresh leadership approaches to thrive during selection and onboarding.

One of the most common examples of bias is the so-called “halo effect” candidates receive from working at well-established organisations. This leads to a favourable impression of the candidate rather than using competencies to assess how fit for role they are.

GatenbySanderson’s research also found that the capability to innovate and identify new approaches (79%), commercial skills (70%) and an ability to manage change (60%) were common attributes that local authorities crave most in prospective leaders to help them provide better quality services. Good recruitment processes get to the heart of the behaviour underpinning track record in these key areas and ensure that capabilities are not overlooked in candidates who are less confident about extrapolating their personal involvement in overcoming leadership challenges.

Adapting to change

The UK is facing an unprecedented period of change. Demand for public services is at an all-time high, while budgets are under ever-more pressure. And, following the result of the EU referendum, Britain must go through the process of reviewing all legislation of the past 40 years, creating even more strain on our vital public sector organisations.

In this context, the case for senior leaders with the expertise and vision to meet the complex demands is even stronger. Overlooking, or failing to focus on, half of the talent pool is not conducive to this.

Furthermore, in an ever-changing, pressured sector, local government organisations need to change to reflect the broader economic geographies and social landscape they exist within, work for and represent. Crucial to this is a comprehensive strategic skills audit – identifying strengths, weaknesses and then setting out a strategy to acquire these skills from a diverse pool.

The key for success is establishing a culture of change, and looking beyond organisational objectives or desired outcomes to establish specific behaviours that will help to facilitate their achievement.


In Numbers: Women in local government

33% - Of elected councillors in England are women, an increase of just five percentage points since 1997. Over the same period, the proportion of women in parliament has increased from 18% to 29%.

17% - Proportion of council leaders who are female, a figure that has increased by just three percentage points in the last 10 years.

1.6 – In 2016, men were 1.6 times more likely to be the long-term incumbent than women. The number of seats that change at every election is relatively small and is never enough to create real change in the gender composition of councillors.

28% - Women councillors who report childcare as a barrier to progress, compared with 18% of men. Another 47% reported clashes with other caring commitments – almost double the figure for men (26%). 

Source: The Local Government Commission