Metro mayors are all men – but women’s voices are needed for the best pandemic recovery


The UK elections taking place in May include seven contests for underground mayors in England. These ‘tube mayors’ run large metropolitan areas outside of London, chairing a group of local council leaders, a group of business leaders who make decisions about local economic growth (Local Business Partnerships) and, in some places the police and the crime commissioner.

After these votes, there will be nine underground mayors in England. There is a brand new competition in West Yorkshire this year, as six mayors are running for a second term. The other two were elected in 2018 and 2019 and are therefore not re-elected this year.

The combined authorities of England have important responsibilities, which are entrusted to them under the decentralization program. They have collective influence on regional economic decision-making and each has different levels of funding freedom. All have a portfolio that includes transport and land use planning, vocational training after 16 years, business support services and economic development. They will now play a crucial role in the recovery and economic growth of the pandemic.

Despite these important powers, there is a serious lack of gender representation. All the current mayors of the metro are men. Of the 31 candidates running for mayor in 2021, only six identify as women.

Downstream from the mayors themselves, the majority of council heads with responsibilities in the combined authorities are also men. This is a huge problem for the representation of women in political and economic leadership. This is also a problem because we know that the gender of the people in the room where the decisions are made does not reflect the gender makeup of the people that those decisions affect.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

It is now widely accepted that including women in decision-making creates better outcomes for all. If most of the people around the table are men, there will inevitably be a void in thinking about the needs of regions and cities.

Decades of government planning for growth have failed to include women and their contribution to the economy. Time and time again, gender and ethnicity are ignored in plans for economic growth. This is shortsighted and ultimately leads to a lack of growth for everyone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the economic landscape of the English regions. Industries that largely employ women, such as the healthcare, hospitality and retail sectors, have been hit harder than construction or manufacturing. Care workers are in high demand, but they often have low-paid, insecure and dangerous jobs. Many hospitality and retail workers have been fired or made redundant.

Women represent 51% of the population. As our regions recover, we must ensure that local leaders and economic decision-makers incorporate the immense variety of experiences of different communities, including women and ethnic groups.

An example from Liverpool

Local economic growth is often driven by an “industrial strategy” – a plan put in place by governments to stimulate certain industries that they believe will increase economic productivity and prosperity. Recent strategies have tended to resemble those produced in previous decades. Investments focus on automotive manufacturing, transportation, construction and pharmaceutical research, for example.

Frustrated by the fact that the same industries are receiving support time and time again, a group of women have gathered in Liverpool to tackle the issue head-on. In March 2020, they brought new ideas for economic growth to the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

In a report presenting their collective perspectives, women highlighted several areas of inclusive economic development. This included a concentrated effort to fund women-led businesses and financial investments in the care sector. He also urged policymakers to recognize that businesses that support social goals while making a profit will reap better results for their local economy and community.

The report’s findings fueled the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s immediate response to COVID in 2020. The LCR worked with the local community to set up the Kindred Fund to support social commerce businesses. The second round of the LCR Future Innovation Fund pilot project was awarded to a more diverse group of businesses, including women-led organizations.

Gender and diversity are essential to realize the economic potential of a region. Women should be seen in leadership positions, as role models and to develop diverse and inclusive strategies. The healthcare and hospitality sectors are basic industries that contribute significantly to the economic productivity of a region. They must offer fair wages and decent conditions to the women who work there. This will begin to close the gender pay gap and the disproportionate effect on women and their families.

People’s skills for creativity, innovation and resilience also support economic growth. This has been demonstrated by local businesses that have a dual mission: to be financially viable and benefit their community – social enterprises. During the lockdown, many of these local businesses appear to have been more responsive and nimble than traditional businesses.

And safe housing and transportation give women the flexibility to choose where, when and how they work. Safe access to work is how everyone will prosper and contribute to the economy. New mayors, councils and police commissioners must therefore ensure that these questions are not separate agendas but a concerted response.

This is where the post-COVID recovery project becomes an opportunity. For too long, local economic growth has been measured by financial results. Reconstruction after this destructive public health crisis could give metro mayors the opportunity to use different methods to measure success. In the future, we could measure the value of health, well-being and self-sufficiency.

There is a small chance that a woman could lead a combined authority after this election, if Labor candidate Tracy Brabin wins in West Yorkshire. But even if she beat the odds, she would still be a tiny minority. Metro mayors are accountable to the public they serve and must include women and ethnic groups in their plans. This will stimulate much needed recovery and future growth in the decentralized regions of England.

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