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Discrimination at the local level

zohra moosa
5 November 2007

Ethnic minority women lack access to power. They are severely underrepresented in senior decision-making positions across the public, private and voluntary sectors. The statistics are stark: less than 1% of top civil service managers are ethnic minority women, only 4 are directors of FTSE 100 companies (0.4%), and none of the 50 highest earning charities have a chair or chief executive that is an ethnic minority woman.

This under-representation is found in politics as well. There are only two ethnic minority women MPs (0.3%) and none in the Cabinet. There have only ever been three ethnic minority women MPs and there has never been an Asian woman MP. There are no ethnic minority women in either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh National Assembly.

At the local level, there are currently only 168 ethnic minority women councillors out of almost 20,000 - less than 1%. Yet the Government is convinced that democracy can be strengthened via devolution and has committed serious money towards increasing community participation in local decisions. But is it true that local institutions are inherently more democratic just because they are local?

The Fawcett Society’s Seeing Double project is interested in why ethnic minority women’s representation is under-par and what can be done about it. And the interim findings from its Routes to Power research project have found that a large part of why there are so few ethnic minority women local councillors is to do with the culture of councils and political parties.

The research was small-scale, speaking to six ethnic minority women councillors in depth to explore their experiences being in the role. It found that councils and many councillors treat the councillor role as it was framed in the past: as a white middle class hobby and a pastime available for those with spare time and money.

Allowances were discussed as an illustration of this point. Participants maintained that current allowances often do not match the heavy work loads involved, are inconsistent across boroughs, and penalise those receiving benefits because they are treated as income rather than honourariums for tax purposes. Leaving aside the reality that only those with some other means of providing for their livelihoods would be able to take on what is essentially a voluntary role despite the level of authority over public money involved, for those councillors receiving benefits, it can actually cost money to be a councillor.

Political parties were also named as problematic for their lack of leadership in recruiting ethnic minority women to their parties and then acting as gate-keepers to potential candidates. Almost all of the research participants had become councillors for one simple reason: someone had asked them to.

If we really want our local governments to represent us and we believe that representative democracy should reflect the diversity of our population, then we need to take some responsibility for tackling exclusive council and party cultures. There are a couple of ways to do this: we could change who participates in the system and/or we could change the nature of the system itself.

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