There are 33 Members of the WMCA Board – 32 are men. But criticism is growing of the male dominance of the WMCA. ‘WMCA – the (Almost) Wholly Male Combined Authority’ – this was the headline of Chris Game’s article in last week’s Birmingham Post (28 September). It was also the headline of his report in the Chamberlain Files on 15 September, where he shows that women are challenging the male dominance of other Combined Authorities.
As long ago as last September women in Greater Manchester set up the DivaManc group to give women a voice in Manchester devolution. In March this year DivaManc and The Fawcett Society, the women’s rights charity, published an ‘Evidence Document’ on Women in Greater Manchester.
“Women in the city region”, it asserted, “are tired of pictures of all-male groups of leaders signing devolution deals, and all-male panels at devolution conferences”. The group’s asks if people are “fed up by the stale, pale, male images and voices that have dominated the DevoManc agenda to date? Struggling to see where the opportunities, wishes, fears and contributions of Greater Manchester women and girls are reflected?” It notes: “Women have been fundamental in building and shaping the Greater Manchester we love and care for. Sometimes we’ve had to make a fuss to be heard.”
It called on all candidates for GMCA Mayor to respond to five Mayoral Pledges and Calls to Action, headed by “Gender-balanced leadership and representation across Greater Manchester”. Says Game, “All five pledges were radical with potentially far-reaching implications. Yet all candidates readily signed up, including odds-on favourite, Labour’s Andy Burnham”.
In contrast, says Game, in the West Midlands, Conservative candidate Andy Street’s 48-page, nearly 250-pledge Renewal Plan cum manifesto contains no reference to gender- or ethnic-balanced leadership and representation, or evidence of even passing concern with the rest of the Fawcett agenda. Game makes this damning judgement about Street:
“inclusion, equality and diversity are part of everyday discussion and practice in today’s local government, and this Mayor’s apparent unawareness – or, worse, carelessness – of their importance and sensitivity seems at minimum a reflection of political naivety”
These are issues that Birmingham Against the Cuts has been raising for months, but the solution is not just more women in leading officer roles, as this letter from a BATC supporter in this week’s Birmingham Post (5 October) argues:
The almost total absence of women in the governance of the WMCA (Chris Game, Birmingham Post, 28 September, p34) is mirrored by the almost complete absence of women and gender issues from its policies. Take for example the Strategic Economic Plan. There is no mention of the gender inequalities that are rife in the West Midlands economy – in fact the word ‘gender’ does not appear at all. Similarly ‘gender’ doesn’t appear in Andy Street’s mayoral election manifesto and its 229 policy ‘pledges’, and the only reference to women is in relation to sport.
The explanation does not lie fundamentally in the virtual exclusion of women from the Board, though that urgently needs to change. It lies in the WMCA’s model of economic growth in which reducing the deep social inequalities in the West Midlands, which are reproduced by the functioning of its economy, is not an integral priority. To seriously tackle them requires a very different approach: an economic strategy for inclusive growth that makes tackling inequalities central to its aims and performance measures.
We need to build mass public pressure for inclusive economic and social policies, with representatives of ordinary citizens and community organisations in the decision-making of the WMCA. And to tackle gender inequality in the WMCA and its policies, open it up to participation by women’s organisations that are active in the communities and unions in the West Midlands, brought together in a WMCA Women’s Forum.
Of course Andy Street might reply that the WMCA has already set up a women’s organisation. The WMCA Review and Annual Plan 2017/2018 announces that ‘West Midlands Women’s Voice [has] been established specifically to support the work of the WMCA’ (p53). It appears as a ‘partner’, with its own logo, on the WMCA website. But there is no information about who they are, what they do, and how women can join it.
But there is a clue. According to the WMCA Bulletin of 16th March this year ‘There has been lots of activity this week at MIPIM to promote the West Midlands region […] delegates from the West Midlands Women’s Voice were also in attendance.’ MIPIM is a 4-day real estate exhibition, conference and networking event in Cannes for 24,000 international property professionals. And here is a tweet: ‘West Midlands Women’s Voice, working with the #WMCA #Birmingham to promote the role of women in a changing economic climate #Cannes #MIPIM’, sent by Nicola Fleet-Milne, owner of FleetMilne Property, a Birmingham real estate rental agency, who seems to be the organiser of West Midlands Women’s Voice.
This is just further typical evidence of the exclusive business-dominated regime and culture of the WMCA. It has set up Women’s Voice as an organisation for privileged businesswomen who can afford to go to international property investment events (unless the WMCA paid for them?), but not for the vast majority of women in the West Midlands.
DivaManc group set up to give women a voice in Manchester devolution. The Guardian 19 September 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/19/divamanc-group-women-voice-manchester-devolution
Chris Game, The Chamberlain Files 15 September 2017. http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/wmca-the-almost-wholly-male-combined-authority/
The West Midlands Combined Authority: business dominance against local democracy. 1 March 2017. https://birminghamagainstthecuts.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/the-west-midlands-combined-authority-business-dominance-against-local-democracy/