Just 29% of councillors and 16% of council Leaders in Scotland are female, compared to 52% of the population.
Such statistics led COSLA to reaffirm its commitment to increasing the representation of women in local government following the 2017 Scottish council elections.
Back then, I was delighted to be appointed President of COSLA, but unfortunately not surprised to learn I was only the third female in that role. I am glad to be supported by a gender-balanced political team of the Vice-President and Spokespersons, which is now guaranteed by our constitution.
In a year which saw a record number of women elected as MSPs, including the first women of colour, it is vital that women are fully represented at decision-making tables across all spheres of government.
In a recent COSLA Leaders’ meeting, it struck me that seven of the Leaders there representing councils were women. Whilst this is definitely not equal representation yet, it is important that we recognise the role models for female leadership in local elected office who can encourage other women to consider standing as candidates.
COSLA also commissioned work to identify the various barriers to elected office and established a Special Interest Group (SIG), which is made up of councillors of all parties and of none, who work tirelessly to help bring about representation reflective of our communities.
As chair of the SIG, I’m proud of the work we do to encourage as wide a range of people as possible to stand as councillors.
And this is exactly what our recent Why You? campaign set out to do ahead of next year’s local government elections.
The campaign, launched in August, ran for 12 weeks and profiled a selection of Scotland’s current councillors to demonstrate that there is not a single type of person that is suited to the councillor role.
Each councillor’s profile shared their motivations for standing, advice for prospective candidates,the rewards and challenges of being a councillor and included who they see as their role model.
Diversity amongst councillors ensures that decisions taken at the local level reflect the lived experience of a local authority’s residents and ensure that our democratic processes are as representative of the communities they serve as possible. We have seen the difference that is made, not only to the issues discussed but also to the outcomes achieved, when there is diversity.
As part of COSLA’s Challenging Barriers to Elected Office work, we are not only encouraging a wider range of people to consider standing for local elected office, but we have also developed guidance to support local authorities to make the councillor role more accessible. This includes guidance on family leave, lone working and the menopause, with further guidance for councils on reasonable adjustments to support elected members with disabilities currently being developed.
There is still more to be done to make the modern councillor role a realistic and accessible choice for individuals who want to make a difference in their community. For example, action is needed to ensure that people with caring responsibilities are supported to balance these with the demands of elected office.
If working during the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can move away from doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’. Standing orders can be changed to accommodate the needs of the 21st century councillor. Instead of placing the expectation on councillors to adapt to the system, we should seek to change the system to remove barriers to elected office for under-represented groups.
As elected members, we need to encourage people from groups currently under-represented in local democracy to consider standing as candidates. Great work is being done by organisations such as Elect Her, Engender and The Young Women’s Movement to remove barriers to political participation and elected office for women, especially women of colour and by Inclusion Scotland to tackle the barriers faced by people with disabilities.
The onus is on all of us within our communities and wards to engage with community leaders and activists, support people on their political journeys and make the case for diverse voices of lived experience at decision-making tables across Scotland. Political role models are a vital aspect of this work, as they challenge misperceptions of who is the ‘right’ type of person for the councillor role, raise the profile of the innovative and impactful work that happens within our local authorities and demonstrate the huge impact that councillors have on their local communities.
Councillors should be representative of the communities they serve and a wider range of voices at the table will ensure that local decision-making truly reflects the needs of those communities. Ultimately, we hope that the answer to the question about why someone should choose to stand for election as a councillor is not ‘why you? but “why not?’
Cllr Alison Evison, COSLA President