President's blog - Advancing Equality: A Message for Elected Members on International Women's Day 2024
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On International Women's Day 2024, COSLA President Shona Morrison discusses the ways elected representatives can have a positive impact on efforts to further gender equality in our communities.

Like you, I am deeply committed to the democratic process.   As we mark International Women's Day 2024, I want to address the issue of gender inequality within elected office and, particularly, the challenges faced by women in local politics.   I am delighted to see councils actively working toward gender equality as that contributes significantly to the overall health and sustainability of our democratic society.   But we must do more.

As democratically elected representatives, our primary role is to serve our citizens. To fulfil this duty effectively, we must be acutely aware of the realities of women's lives across our communities.  Local Government delivers vital services impacting women and girls daily, including education, public transport, leisure facilities, and social care.  Understanding the unique experiences of women in relation to issues like violence, health, and other sensitive matters is crucial.  Local responses must be developed, informed and supported by women in decision-making positions.

Despite significant efforts to encourage women to enter politics, progress in women's representation across Local Government has been slow, as highlighted in Engender’s 2023 report on Sex and Power in Scotland.  The recent elections showed a slight increase in female councillors, yet deeper challenges persist, including the underrepresentation of women from diverse backgrounds, especially women of colour.  I cannot stress enough that addressing discrimination in all its forms is crucial for fostering an inclusive political environment.

Historically, structural and cultural problems, such as the toxic culture of sexism, have acted as significant deterrents for women, leading some female councillors to decide against seeking re-election.  However, we must be positive and ambitious, and lots of good work is being done to address these issues in several councils – with many women now in leadership positions.

Low pay and inadequate support structures disproportionately affect women, particularly those from underrepresented groups.  However, the report by the independent Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee has now been published and we have seen clear strides in changes to family leave over the last few years which have improved conditions for councillors especially women.   There is though still work to be done in this area and COSLA is committed to that.

Professional development, mentoring, and sponsorship programmes are essential to support women throughout their political careers.  These initiatives, coupled with a commitment to removing physical barriers in council buildings and processes, will create a more inclusive and supportive environment for women in elected positions.

Therefore, today, I want to issue a call-to-action, highlighting why Gender Equality Matters in Local Governance:

Reflecting Society's Diversity: A council that accurately represents the diversity of its community is better equipped to address the varied needs, concerns, and perspectives of all citizens.

Enhancing Policy Effectiveness: Equal gender representation ensures a more comprehensive understanding of societal issues, leading to well-rounded policies that address the complexities of a diverse population.

Legitimacy and Public Trust: A visibly representative council earns greater legitimacy and trust from citizens, fostering a sense that their concerns are heard and considered.

Role Modelling and Aspirations: Women in political leadership serve as role models, encouraging young girls to aspire to leadership positions, breaking gender stereotypes.

Preventing Gender-Based Discrimination: Diverse representation counteracts systemic gender-based discrimination, leading to policies addressing issues such as unequal pay, gender violence, and workplace discrimination.

Comprehensive Problem Solving: Diverse representation facilitates the creation of policies considering a wide range of perspectives, contributing to more effective governance.

Encouraging Civic Engagement: Commitment to gender equality fosters civic engagement, leading to a more active and involved citizenry.

Human Rights: By championing equal gender representation, Local Government contributes to the broader international effort to promote human rights and equality.

In essence, achieving gender equality in Local Government is about building a democracy that thrives on diverse perspectives, promotes inclusivity, and addresses the complex challenges faced by society.

As we navigate the current cost of living crisis, we must move beyond discussion and take concrete actions to create an equitable political landscape.  Sexist behaviours must be unequivocally condemned by those in all political parties and none, and we must collectively address these issues across spheres of government.

On International Women’s Day 2024, let us recommit to our work, driving forward action towards the achievement of gender equality and women’s equal representation in Local Government.  Together, we can create not only a brighter and more inclusive political future, but a fairer, safer and more equal world.

Councillor Shona Morrison

COSLA President