New gender council has local government in its sights

Australia’s first independent body committed to gender equality is set to partner with councils to help get more women into elected and executive roles.

The Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC), which launched this week, is Australia’s first independent national body supporting the achievement of gender equality through national campaigns based on research.

AGEC, which has a member network of more than 500,000 women and girls, including the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA), will advocate for gender equality while developing research around the causes and impacts of inequality.

Coral Ross, who is president of the Australian Local Government Women’s Association, has been elected deputy chair of AGEC.

She says that progress on women’s participation in councils is incredibly slow, and equality will be a long way off if swift action isn’t taken.

Coral Ross

“We’ve worked out that if we continue at the current level as far as elected representatives are concerned we won’t reach parity until 2063,” Ms Ross told Government News.

Latest figures show that women make up about a third of elected councillor positions, with NSW and South Australia (both on 29 per cent) some of the worst performing states for gender equality in councils. Nationally just 11 per cent of council CEOs and general managers are women.

There is also a huge disparity in gender representation among occupation streams and employment type within local government, with women making up less than 10 per cent of the engineering and infrastructure roles, while only 54 per cent of women work full time in councils compared to 83 per cent of men.

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, managing director of AGEC, said that that achieving complete gender parity will be a priority of AGEC.

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons

“For local government, we would like to see not only 50/50 representation of elected members in councils but also in the bureaucracy that supports them, including CEOs and executives,” he told Government News.

Dr Fitzsimmons said the new council’s aim was to drive a cultural shift in gender equality, “whether within councils, the federal or state parliaments or boards of corporations.”

The AGEC will further research across a number of areas, including a current project that aims to model the cause and impacts of the gender and superannuation pay gap.

The new council is also developing a guideline for best practice interventions for the participation and progression of women in the workforce.

Leadership divide  

Although there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, including equal pay and superannuation, Ms Ross says the under-representation of women in leadership roles within councils will be a key area for AGEC to focus on.

“Research shows having a woman at the table means you get more women in leadership positions, so having more women councillors in turn means you’ll have more female mayors and CEOs as well,” she said.

Dr Fitzsimmons says offering specific training tailored towards women is needed to help encourage more women to pursue a path within councils.

He also argues that challenging outdated attitudes around gendered careers at an early age is one of the best ways of tackling gender inequality in councils:

“Something that could be helpful is for local councils to go out to local high schools, catch kids in years 7 or 8 and describe their role so young women can see this is a pathway they can follow.”

Ms Ross says that councils themselves can also play a role in cutting through bureaucracy and taking grassroots action to address gender inequality.

“A Victorian council, Surf Coast, was the first employer in Australia to give family violence leave to staff. Now 78 in Victoria have that as part of their EBA. More and more councils across the country are introducing paid domestic violence leave,” she said.

Dr Fitzsimmons says he senses the zeitgeist is changing, with a number of men and women alike getting behind the gender equality cause, particularly as public outrage over a lack of female representation in Parliament rises.

“Slowly we’re seeing more men in the room wanting to talk about gender equality,” he said. “There needs to be a focus for people to get behind something and we’re hoping we’re it.”

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