Today is International Women’s Day and to celebrate, we’ve spoken to female leaders from local authorities across South East Wales, to discover their views on our progress towards becoming a gender equal region free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination – exploring how CCR is reshaping to become more diverse and inclusive … valuing and embracing the differences that make our world stronger and more resilient.
This special feature spotlights the thoughts and insights of Mary Ann Brocklesbury, Leader of Monmouthshire County Council; Lis Burnett, Leader of the Vale of Glamorgan County Council; Christina Harrhy, Chief Executive of Caerphilly County Borough Council; Jane Mudd, Leader of Newport City Council, and Beverly Owen, Chief Executive of Newport City Council – exploring their views and discovering their experiences as women who are shaping inclusive communities across our Region …
“What does International Women’s Day mean to you?”
“For me It’s a day for celebration, honouring and remembering the achievements and the challenges women have faced and continue to face when taking their place in the world,” says Mary Ann Brocklesbury. “It’s also a time to recognise the sheer diversity of women’s lives across Wales – a day for each of us to stand up for the rights of all women and girls. IWD will be a necessary marker of the continuing equality gap women face – until we have a world where it’s unthinkable that half the population could be discriminated against, treated unequally and have to deal daily with the fear of harassment and abuse.”
“IWD is a time to reflect on what has been achieved and how much there is left to do – because there is still so much more to do,” says Lis Burnett. “Personally, it’s also a time for me to thank the women politicians who have taken the time to provide support and advice. Jane Hutt, Lorraine Barrett, Rebecca Evans, Carolyn Harris and Tessa Jowell all spring to mind – and in particular Maureen Devlin, a colleague who took the time to provide detailed feedback and advice, changing the direction of my life. She died many years ago, but I still have her letters.”
“A day to reflect on what’s been achieved - and what is left to do”
That theme of reflection and need for further action resonates widely, with Christina Harrhy noting that “today is a celebration of the many amazing achievements across a diverse range of industries and disciplines, and a reminder to females of any age to be bold, be brave and be brilliant!”
And Jane Mudd emphasising that “IWD is important because it’s a global movement, celebrating women and recognising the challenges that women face in many aspects of life. It provides a real opportunity to raise awareness and inform change.”
Beverly Owen summarised the thoughts of many when she says:
“It’s an opportunity for us to recognise and celebrate the major achievements of women in all walks of life, but it also reminds us of the journey and challenges women have faced in our efforts to achieve equality – and prompts us to recognise that there is still more to be done.”
“How would you rate your work sector as an employer of women?”
“I came into local politics last year as a first time councillor and first time local authority Leader,” says Mary Ann. “One of the first things I noticed was the lack of female leadership and my council being only one of two in Wales with a 50:50 gender balance. In 2022 that should not have been seen as something to celebrate. It should have been the norm. We have a long way to go before that is the case and where there is diversity in representation and leadership from all backgrounds.”
“I think there is support through training, coaching, networks for women councillors” continues Mary Ann, “but fundamentally there are entrenched social and gender norms that create a culture which at best undermines women in positions of power and at worse is abusive. Too many women in politics face levels of attack which dissuades other women of enormous talent from stepping forward.”
“It’s very much still a work in progress”
“I think we would have to say it’s a work in progress,” notes Lis. “As one of only four female council leaders in Wales and Leader of a Council and coalition that is gender balanced I would say that for women in the Vale of Glamorgan a career in politics has become much more accessible. That said, many still comment that abuse of local women politicians is the main barrier to becoming involved.”
Christina’s background in another sector gives her a different perspective: “I’m a proud Chartered civil engineer and Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers,” says Christina. “My engineering qualifications provide a really strong basis upon which to build a senior leadership career – and local government is such a great place to work, as the wonderful rainbow of diversity is fully embraced and encouraged. The Civil Engineering industry has progressed significantly over recent years. As I progressed through my career, I was so often “the first woman to” but now women across all engineering sectors are the norm rather than the exception.”
“The political environment can be very challenging for women” notes Jane. “Although great progress has been made, attitudes and behaviours can still be off putting. The new legislation which has introduced hybrid working to local government will, I hope, enable more women to come forward as candidates. We need to continue to take forward campaigns such as the WLGA Diversity in Democracy and Civility in Public Life campaigns.
“I think the public sector in general has changed significantly since I joined local government,” says Beverly. “If you look at Newport City Council as an example, I believe we are genuinely sector leading. Over two thirds of the senior leadership team are women and there is real diversity across the whole workforce. However, the public sector still needs to do more, not just in terms of gender equality, but across all aspects of equality, and a great deal of this is as much about conversations and understanding as it is about policies.”
“What can we do to make the workplace and society inclusive of all?”
“One step to changing the current situation that disadvantages women in leadership positions is to tackle the unpaid care and domestic work they disproportionately carry out,” says Mary Ann. “It’s unrealistic to expect gender equality if councils demand that women be available all the time to a schedule outside of their control. Let’s start talking about how councils need to adapt to the ‘whole person,’ which includes giving choice and flexibility to all genders so they can better schedule their paid work around domestic and other non-paid responsibilities.”
“While there is support given to councillors of all genders to enable them to attend meetings,” notes Mary Ann, “it’s not always taken up. Women with caring responsibilities thinking of standing as a local councillor often don’t know of this support and don’t put themselves forward. Training, mentoring and hybrid working all help, but fundamentally we need a shift in the social and gender norms.”
“We need a shift in the social and gender norms”
For Lis, it’s important to “Be kind. None of us know what our colleagues are facing in their lives or have experienced in their past. That kind word or harsh comment could be the difference in the outcome to their day and ultimately between their success and failure. Schools in the Vale of Glamorgan have adopted a ‘Trauma Informed’ approach in which every young person is supported to be their best – and I would like to see that adopted across workplaces and wider society.”
“The move to agile working following the pandemic has made a significant difference to us all,” says Christina, “enabling us to manage our work and home life commitments and responsibilities. Our HR policies are so comprehensive and flexible now, I think they offer a great framework upon which to support how we all wish to work and what we need in place to support our diverse needs.”
Jane agrees that progress is about more than policy: “We have legislative frameworks in place to support equality, diversity and inclusion but these only form one part of our response. We need to recognise and celebrate diversity and continue to raise awareness. As female politicians we have a responsibility to ensure that we do all we can to encourage representatives who are reflective of the communities that they serve and the same applies in respect of our workforce.
The final words go to Beverly, who emphasises: “Conversations, awareness raising and education should be at the heart of everything we do.”
“Many issues often arise from a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding – so creating safe spaces for networking, collaborating and celebrating differences is crucial to fostering inclusivity. From a workplace perspective we must continue to strive for equality of opportunity, ensuring every individual, regardless of gender or other characteristics, is fully supported to reach their full potential. At work and in society we should all be working to create a culture where diversity is celebrated – today and every day.”
We’d like to thank our local authority leaders for sharing their insights on female equality and inclusion in general – look out for our sister feature scoping the views of female priority sector leaders in the CCR, on a day that celebrates women in all walks of life, across our Region and the wider world.