Only one in three Salford councillors is female – the lowest proportion of the 10 Greater Manchester boroughs where the average is 40 per cent.
“It’s awful, and the fact this is an improvement for us is really sad,” Eccles Labour candidate Sharmina August says in exasperation, as she considers how only 33 per cent of Salford City Council is female.
August, who is standing for re-election on May 6, is the executive support member for equalities, communities and social impact. Between 2016 and 2019, the level remained at 30 per cent, and she claims the increase to a third was down to Labour Party policy which dictated that every ward had to have at least one female candidate, a practice continued this year.
Reflecting on this progress, Councillor August, who knows what it’s like to be ‘the only one’ in the room, being the only BAME woman and the only Muslim on the council, said: “It’s still not good enough. How can you say having only a third of female councillors is representative?
“We have a lot more work to do and it’s something that we are working on, I am passionate about, and there are things that we can do to change things and it is a case of, unfortunately, women banging at the door to try and make these changes and until there’s more women in the room that doesn’t really seem to happen.”
This exasperation is shared by Nicola Waterworth, who has campaigned around women and politics for two decades, and is now a member of GM4Women28, a coalition using data to strive for gender equality across Greater Manchester.
Waterworth, who is part of GM4women’s participation group, said: “I feel a combination of frustration and anger. Frustrated because there’s a level of tedium in the fact that it’s 2021 and we’re still having this conversation, why is it so hard to get to 50/50? Frustration and anger for our rights to representation, for the individual talented women – as it’s not that there aren’t women with the skills to bring to this. And anger because we’re not getting the best outcomes for people if they’re not represented in their councils.”
She believes this low female representation means women’s agendas are missed; explaining how legislation prioritising women, such as the Equal Pay Act, and Violence Against Women and Girls, only gained traction because there were women at the table.
Different perspectives can be missed too, citing Scotland’s more gender sensitive Parliament, where there’s more conversation about gender budgeting, about who the economy does and doesn’t work for.
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Councillor August agrees that more female councillors would put greater emphasis on women’s issues.
She said: “I’m currently trying to get through Salford Council a motion for councillors to have parental leave, but it’s not something that was considered until we had women involved. If you think about that specifically relating to councillor jobs then you extrapolate how that might filter down to the city. People try their best in terms of women’s issues, but it should be nothing about us without us.
“We have the required insight – having someone in the room to say ‘that wouldn’t work, because if you put that barrier in, you couldn’t get a buggy down there’. A long time ago, when they put barriers across pathways to stop motorbikes, such things hadn’t occurred because the people thinking about it didn’t have those responsibilities, and it happens all across the board.”
She also believes having more female councillors would bring new things to light, giving the example of the last council meeting, where Councillor Laura Edwards spoke about her experiences of sexual harassment.
She said: “We are taking it really seriously and doing things about it, but I don’t think that it would have been mentioned at council without women. They would’ve said ‘isn’t it awful that these things have happened, let’s have a minute silence’, but we don’t need bowed heads, we need action.
“It’s thanks to having brave women who stand forward in difficult positions that we can make real change, we can’t rely on other people to speak out for us because the message hasn’t gotten across in the past.”
The leader of the Salford Conservative Party, Les Turner, was not so sure that more female councillors would alter the council’s agenda, explaining that party politics dictates policy more.
He said: “It’s hard to say, without having lots of women, whether it’ll make any difference. From the point of view of the ruling group, they just do as they’re told, I’ve never known one of them go against what the city mayor wants to do.
“It will depend more on how many women are at executive level. The opposition party does have women on their cabinet, whether that makes any difference to the way they go about things, I wouldn’t know because I’m not there.”
Campaigner Waterworth replied: “Having women in decision-making places matters, but we need both, because I’ll be interested to know if the Conservatives were in power in Salford, how they would have women in the cabinet if they didn’t have any women councillors!”
One way to increase female representation is to introduce positive discrimination, but Councillor Turner said his party wouldn’t consider this.
He said: “I don’t believe in all that nonsense, I believe the best person for the job gets the job. When I’m on interview panels, I don’t care if they’re black, white, female, male, I go by what I think they can give to the city.
“I would like to see more women, certainly from our side, but they’re not coming forward and that’s what needs to change.”
He believes that motherhood is the main reason why there aren’t more female councillors, explaining: “Mothers feel they have to give a lot of attention to the children, and I think if they don’t, they probably feel guilty.
“If you asked women why they don’t want to stand, they’ll probably say that they’ve got too much on, that they’ll wait until they’re older and the children are off their hands.”
Councillor Turner also suggests that women dislike the aggressive side of politics.
He said: “Full council is a theatre basically, and the women don’t deal so well with it, they’re not as thick-skinned as some of the men, although not all the men are thick-skinned.
“From an opposition point of view, over the last four years we’ve seen sustained, personal attacks very often in the council. We had two female councillors, one’s leaving because she said, ‘Les I’m not taking this every two months, it’s too much’.”
Councillor August and Nicola Waterworth believe female hesitancy is down to the unprecedented abuse they receive, rather than any sensitivity.
Waterworth said: “Harassment and abuse is an obstacle and there’s not enough done to address that. Parties lack organisational accountability, and councillors lack employment rights because they’re not seen as employees, so more clarity of accountability for their workplace would help address harassment.”
Councillor August, who has experienced harassment online and in person, says having more female representation will change this, as people get used to seeing competent women in authority positions.
She also believes more training for women would improve representation, and says Salford Labour’s 2019 women’s event fielded 3 candidates for this year’s election.
She said: “We provided training and a safe space to ask questions that you wouldn’t if there’s men in room, like what if people comment on my appearance. Having more women spaces to ask those questions is the way forward and as a party we’re doing more, but it should be on local authorities.”
Waterworth coaches aspiring female politicians as part of her work with ElectHer, and says women only need more encouragement than men because they are aware of the added barriers they face.
She said: “I don’t meet these passionate, skilled women and think they lack confidence, that is the furthest thing from my mind. We need to work from both ends so that more of the structural obstacles are changed, and they are provided with more support so that they can stand.”
Explaining these structural barriers, Councillor August says that daytime council meetings, lack of parental leave, and the pay cut councillors take from their day-to-day jobs, are all harder for women to manage as they’re more likely to be in lower paid work or have caring responsibilities.
Although the move to online meetings offered a partial solution, the Government have said these must stop from May 7. Councillor August says the Government could also help representation by setting a standard rate for councillor pay, citing how Manchester Council, with 50 per cent females, pays £6,000 more than Salford.
Ultimately, Councillor August sees collaborative action as the way forward.
“I am optimistic, but knowing that it’s going to be a really difficult battle because unfortunately some people don’t prioritise it,” she said. “Action needs to be taken at a much higher level but it’s a campaign that needs to be pushed from the grassroots as well, people telling their local representative that this is important to them.
“My final thing would be – any woman who’s ever considered it, just come forward. It’s not easy but it’s so rewarding when you make change. If it’s a small thing like barriers on paths, or a huge thing like bringing in a new policy, every single win you think ‘that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t here’. I do love the job.”