The conduct of men: The biggest barrier for women leadership in local government

The success of local government depends on, among other good governance principles, ethical and accountable political and administrative leadership. Research conducted by the University of the Free State (2024), on behalf of the Local Government Sector Education and Training Authority (LGSETA), assessed the competencies and constraints on optimal performance of appointed and elected women leaders in the local government.

A total of 422 women from various municipalities in South Africa participated in the study - 33 councillors, 71 managers and 318 non-managers (aspiring future managers).The research included an empowerment theory perspective, which is used to evaluate the competencies of women in local government and identify other barriers that may impede the optimal empowerment of women in local government. Using a self-assessment competency framework as stipulated by the Municipal Staff Regulations, the study assessed a range of competencies, namely the professional functional competence (skills the individual has cultivated within their professional domain), personal competence (attributes that enable an individual to perform optimally), public service competence (the ability of the individual to reflect on personal capacity and orientation), management and leadership competence (the ability to work with and through others around a common cause).

Based on an individual self-evaluation, the participants rated themselves as either beginner, developing, proficient or advanced. Additionally, contextual issues related to the lived experience of women in the workplace, including issues of intimidation, bullying and the availability of childcare facilities were considered.

The research's main assumption was that women’s participation in local government enhances good governance. The data compiled and assessed throughout this study confirms that the representation of women is a fundamental aspect of municipal governance in South Africa. The results demonstrate that South Africa has made progress towards gender equality and equal representation of women in local government (as required by Article 7 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW and stipulated in the Beijing Platform of Action), but that more can and should be done. For example, the research finds that in general, childcare facilities are missing in the local government workplace. The availability of childcare services however could address the challenges women face due to the gendered division of care work.

According to the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), following the 2021 municipal elections, male councillors (63%) continue to dominate political representation in contrast to (37%) women councillors. The statistics in no way reflect the registered voters of 55% women and 45% men (SALGA, 2023). This means that political decision-making at the municipal level is still predominantly controlled by male councillors, despite the commitment from most political parties to achieve gender parity. The underrepresentation of women in local government has a detrimental impact on the effective address of women’s issues.  The under-appreciation of women's issues creates a disconnect between their requirements and the fact that, despite comprising the majority of the population, women face the greatest number of obstacles pertaining to skills, ability and competencies development for optimal performance in the local government workplace.

The findings of the research indicate that women in local government possess proficient basic skills. This is true for both elected and appointed officials. With regards to the elected officials, the research results indicate that most of the councillors were recruited into the party due to their activism in their respective communities. The training they received to prepare them for their new role was informal and formal training only took place when they became councillors.

The research reveals that female councillors continue to experience explicit and implicit forms of male dominance and even exploitation. There was also broad recognition that elected representatives require digital skills to navigate the internet. This includes not only basic computer skills but also the ability to negotiate online protocols and conduct oneself accordingly.

The main skills auditing gaps analysis found that women councillors do submit skills information but very little is done with the collated data, noting the equity target of 54% of women should benefit from human resources development interventions. One potential avenue for improvement is to include women councillors more directly in the work skills processes of the municipality. Another strategy for enhancing the performance effectiveness of women is to ensure that women support one another to form a united front, especially against male dominance, intimidation, and discrimination.

Women also reported that they have learnt more through informal learning from other colleagues compared to what they learnt through formal courses. The idea of local community-based women's caucuses was mooted as women face unique challenges in the workplace having to balance their responsibilities as spouses, mothers, grandmothers, providers and community activists. This is generally a fraction of the roles that men play.

There should be no difference in the conduct of men and women. However, more can and must be done to ensure that the challenges faced by women are better addressed in the workplace. One case in point is the consequence faced by a member of parliament, Naledi Chirwa who was disciplined by her party for attending to her sick child and in the process missing a crucial vote in parliament. The stance of the party bosses was that loyalty to the party takes precedence over family obligations. One can only imagine the untenable position that the female member of parliament faced.

Sometimes men engage in behaviours that are deliberately or inadvertently disrespectful and undermining towards their female colleagues. For example, it is not uncommon for appointed and elected women to be side-lined by their male colleagues. As some respondents phrased it, men are only interested in power and using women to get to positions. Another senior local government practitioner indicated that she has experienced more instances of sexism in the workplace than racism. At the national and provincial levels, SALGA has addressed the issue of women’s empowerment in local government through various forums that have increased and capacitated elected and appointed women. However, women often return to negative male-dominated working environments. The conduct of men appears to be the biggest barrier to women’s advancement in the workplace. This is particularly evident in instances where women in leadership positions are in the minority, where they are frequently overlooked, victimised and belittled. It can be observed that men are often indifferent to the impact of their actions and fail to recognise the offensiveness of their behaviours.

The research also confirms that women do experience online and physical bullying in the workplace. One female councillor had her car torched and faces continuous threats from community members who often resort to emotional blackmail and abuse. These incidents are indicative of the considerable pressure that current and future councillors are facing. The question thus arises as to whether the intimidation occurs due to their gender, their role as a councillor, or both. Although the real motivation remains unclear, female councillors are particularly vulnerable to such attacks, with some being killed. There is no doubt that the stakes for women leaders in local government are considerable and that the costs of being an elected women office-bearer is particularly high. This pattern is likely to intensify as South Africa approaches its local government elections in 2026.

In summary, the research findings reveal a complex interplay of factors that contribute to the underrepresentation and underutilisation of women's potential in leadership and management roles. These factors range from structural barriers and skill disparities to cultural and institutional biases that collectively hinder women's advancement and efficacy in decision-making positions. Notably, the lack of mentorship and networking opportunities, combined with work-life balance challenges and inadequate recognition, underscores the systemic nature of these obstacles.

Embedded within these challenges, however, are opportunities for transformative change. The evidence and insights gathered not only highlight the gaps but also point towards actionable strategies that can be employed to dismantle these barriers. Targeted interventions in training and development, policy reform, and cultural change are crucial in creating an enabling environment for women leaders.

The qualitative interviews and focus groups conducted have added valuable perspectives to this understanding, underscoring the importance of listening directly to women in these situations. These first-hand accounts reinforce the need for a concerted effort to address the obstacles to women’s competency development and optimal performance in municipal governance. A systematic evidenced-based multi-year implementation approach is recommended to ensure that all workplace barriers restricting the advancement of women are increasingly effectively reduced.

This article is part of a series reporting on research commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority (LGSETA) (Contact:

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