When George Osborne signed the first of the much-heralded Northern Powerhouse devolution deals with the Greater Manchester region in 2014, there was something remarkable about the photographs that accompanied the headlines. Of the twelve politicians around the table as this new tier of government was being set up, every one was a white man.
It transpired that the leader of one council, Stockport’s Sue Derbyshire, had been on holiday at the time – but the picture still wasn't great. In the West Midlands, where another major deal has been signed, men are similarly over-represented at the top, with just three women amongst the 33 members of the Combined Authority – which is effectively the cabinet of this new setup.
Then, in May 2017, voters in six city regions across the country elected the country’s first ‘Metro Mayors’. All six were men.
We know that women remain under-represented across the whole of public life. Devolution deals and Metro Mayors are meant to offer a new way forward for public services and economic growth but so far they have not offered change on women’s representation. And if those new Mayors want to deliver on their vision for devolution, women’s voices must be heard.
That’s why the Fawcett Society is working with local partners over the next year, funded by the Smallwood Trust, to bring women together in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, to ensure diverse women's voices are heard and that policymakers make decisions to advance gender equality. It doesn’t just matter that more women are at the top, but that all women’s experiences and views are taken into account. The outcomes we seek are concrete changes to policy in the two areas – to areas which impact disproportionately on women, and to the way that women are engaged and heard – through the involvement of diverse women in the project.
We have started by looking at the data – and putting some numbers to the inequality women experience. That happens too rarely when politicians are making decisions, but what we have found shows how vital it is.
In the West Midlands, for example, we have found that the gap between women’s and men’s employment rates is actually rising – while it is falling in the country as a whole. In both Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, too few women are in better-paid Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs, or studying for apprenticeships in construction.
In both places women do the majority of unpaid childcare and care for adults – but they are also 83% of the social care paid workforce, and too often on insecure zero-hours contracts. When it comes to planning transport too, a key part of the new Mayors’ remit, women’s experiences differ. So much attention focusses on major investments in train infrastructure like HS2 – but women are much more likely to travel by bus, where services have been long-neglected.
We have been talking about this data, and more importantly about their lived experiences, with women in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands at our workshops over spring and summer of 2018, and will continue to do so into the autumn – and we know that leaders within the Combined Authorities are eager to engage with what they are saying.
Unless they take the time to look at the data, and hear women’s voices, the male-dominated Combined Authorities could make decisions that only work for half their population. That would be a moral failure – and a huge missed opportunity.
Policy and Insight Manager