UK local government is falling short when it comes to gender equality and is in need of urgent reform, according to a year-long study published today by women’s charity the Fawcett Society.

It found just four percent of local councils in England have a formal maternity, paternity, or parental leave policy in place for councillors, while 75 percent of the councils said that they had nothing on offer for female councillors who fall pregnant.

Furthermore, the most senior finance or economic development roles within local councils are dominated by men.

The information was obtained by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

The report, co-authored with the Local Government Information Unit, asked the question: “Does local government work for women?”

While only 17 percent of council leaders are female — a figure that has remained unchanged for a decade — the Fawcett Society’s report provides a series of recommendations on how to attract more women to local government roles.

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Sam Smethers, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, said in a statement issued to Verdict:

Local government is increasingly important for all our lives, but particularly for women. Yet significant barriers remain preventing their participation. This was the picture across all political parties. But many of the changes that are needed, such as a maternity policy for councillors, are relatively easy to introduce. As we get ready to mark next year’s centenary of women’s votes and the first women MPs to be elected we have to ask ourselves how we have managed to create new devolved institutions that are even more male dominated than local authorities. We are going backwards and that is fundamentally unacceptable in 21st century.

In county councils, it will take until 2065 — 48 years — to reach equality, the report found.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP, co-chair of the Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission, said:

I led a council 25 years ago and I have been shocked during the course of this review to find how little has changed and how few improvements have been made towards equality in local government. The way councils do business is still designed by, and for, men. This needs to change, and fast. Currently local government is not fit for purpose and does not work for women.

What recommendations does the report make?

The report makes a number of recommendations to the UK government, political parties, and local councils to drive change.

1. Hire more female councillors

Most importantly, the Fawcett Society calls on all parties to set targets for taking on more female councillors, making it a legal requirement to attract as many as 45 percent of candidates who are women.

Local councils should achieve this goal by harnessing technology to encourage more women to apply for roles in local government.

Gillian Keegan MP, co-chair of the of the Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission, said:

Being a councillor is so rewarding and offers a great opportunity to learn new skills. We need to get out there and sell the merits of the role to women across the country. However, if we want them to take an interest, we have to make the role more flexible and promote the use of technology.

2. Make it easier for female employees in local government roles

The government should introduce a statutory England-wide maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave policy for councillors.

Childcare costs should also be covered.

3. Greater flexibility

Remote attendance at council meetings should be enshrined in UK law, using technological tools to foster inclusion.

4. Collect more data

To ensure greater diversity, enact & amend section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to collect data on the representation of local council candidates and councillors.

5. Encourage more women to stand for office

The Local Government Association’s (LGA) ‘Be a councillor’ campaign should be rolled out to boost female representation in local government roles.

At least 50 percent of cabinet members and chairs of committees should be women.