Young women missing from local councils

In her early days in the top job – and her second term as a councillor – Camden’s youngest ever female mayor was still mistaken at meetings for the minute taker.

“I guess people were more used to seeing the stereotypical older male in the role of mayor,” Lara Symkowiak, 33, said.

Statistically, that might not be an unreasonable assumption.

According to new data from the most recent council elections, the face of local government is still overwhelmingly old, and male.

Women, the young and the linguistically or culturally diverse were under-represented across the more than 4500 candidates vying for 1440 positions in the 2012 poll.

“Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure councils are more representative of the communities they serve,”said Melissa Gibbs, the deputy director of Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government.

The Division of Local Government survey, published this month, found the typical candidate in 2012 was a professional male in his 50s who spoke English as a first language and did not identify as indigenous or as having a disability.

The typical councillor elected differed only in that he was a decade older.

Despite comprising 51 per cent of the population, women made up only 27 per cent of councillors elected, and 19 per cent of mayors.

The number of women wearing the mayoral chains was found to have dropped from 23 per cent in 2008. Women held the chamber majority in just nine councils, the survey found, including the City of Sydney, North Sydney, Manly, and Camden councils.

Five others – Orange and the shires of Blayney, Coonamble, Gundagai and Lachlan – had no female representatives at all.

The results follow separate research by Local Government NSW that found that the competing commitments of council and employment were a significant barrier to more women participating in local politics.

Cr Symkowiak was working full time for a major bank in Sydney’s CBD when, at 27, she became a Liberal councillor at Camden in 2008. The elected position, despite its demanding hours and workload, paid just $15,000 a year, before tax.

“I think previously it’s been seen, and still is in some respects, as what older men do in retirement,” said Cr Symkowiak, who decided against a full-time city job when elected mayor in 2012, a position that pays $50,000 a year.

“I felt that I would be spread too thinly and that I had to choose one or the other,” she said.

Better pay would be one way to attract the young – who were more likely to have greater financial commitments like mortgages or dependent children – to local government, she said.

Local Government NSW president Keith Rhoades said the imbalance was redressed ‘‘with great difficulty’’, but also suggested better pay would help attract more young professionals.

The survey also found the number of councillors with a first language other than English increased to 8 per cent, compared to 22 per cent of the community.

Local Government Minister Don Page said the government was ‘‘disappointed’’ that ‘‘despite our efforts, the makeup of our councils does not more closely reflect the population makeup of 21st century NSW.’’

The results of the survey will be used to assess the effectiveness of the diversity strategies employed at the last election, such as candidate information seminars, ahead of the 2016 poll, Mr Page said.

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