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Irwin, R 2009, 'Dancing in the lion's den: women leaders in local government', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright R Irwin 2009


During the twentieth century, women were elected into all spheres of government and political leadership positions in increasing numbers. Still, their numbers are substantially lower than their representation in the population. The same trend is evident in local government in many countries. With few exceptions, there are now more women numerically and proportionately in local government than in state or national governments. Nevertheless, the limited research on women representatives in local government demonstrates that the environment of local government is not necessarily comfortable for women. Many more women than men leave local government voluntarily. If women who are currently practising politics inside local government leave in substantial numbers then little will change. This means that women entering it in the future will face the same environments and challenges (Freeman & Bourque 2001).

Against this background, the research study seeks to provide an explanation of how different women experience and perceive positions traditionally held by men, whether there are shared understandings and experiences that transcend the women’s differences and whether they are changing the environment of local government. To investigate these questions, I employ qualitative feminist research within a framework of feminist political theory, drawing broadly on a range of feminist theory and a variety of political emphases. I interview forty-nine women leaders in local government from England, Sweden, India, the Philippines and Australia, investigating their perspectives and practice thus weighing theory with practice.

Several theoretical and practical themes emerge from these findings. The practice revealed by the interviewees is complex, ambiguous and nuanced, consistent with the feminist valuation of relationship, context and the particular. The interviewees bring a different social perspective, reflecting their situated experiences, to their work. This transforms the masculinist environment of the lion’s den in significant, albeit subtle, ways. The practice of the interviewees shapes agendas and decision-making processes, changes the way representatives of both genders feel about those processes, and molds outcomes for their communities in subtle but distinct ways. In addition, many of the interviewees use their agency actively to change the practices and environment of their councils.

I conclude that the practice revealed by these interviewees is best described as a dance in a complex and alien environment, within which women make a palpable difference. This supports arguments for increasing women at the leadership level in both the administrative and political areas of local government, supported by a critical mass of women councillors. More than that, it testifies to the urgency of that task if local government – the lion’s den – is to be more representative of the diverse people it purports to represent.