The 2021 NSW council elections produced a step change in the number of women elected to local councils. The numbers not only went up, but it was the highest increase that I could find on record. The numbers appear to have reached some kind of tipping point that means that a significantly larger number of councils now have a majority of councillors who are women.
For this project I’ve coded the list of councillors elected at the last three election cycles (2011-12, 2016-17 and 2021) with my best attempt to work out the gender of each councillor. This can be a fraught task and I’m sure it’s not 100% perfect but it shows a pretty clear trend. I’ve also used reports commissioned after the 2004 and 2008 election based on surveys of candidates and councillors which have allowed me to extend some datasets as far back as 1987. Thanks to Nick Casmirri for tracking these down.
In 1987, just 15.9% of councillors were women. This increased over the next decade to 26.3% in 1999, but then mostly flatlined, just climbing to 27.1% in 2012.
The last two elections have seen big increases, particularly in 2021. 31.4% of councillors elected in 2016 and 2017 were women, and the current councillor intake is 39.5% women.
These increases have been occurring right across the state. 44.1% of councillors in the Greater Sydney region are now women, with 37.4% of councillors outside of Sydney.
Of the 124 councils which held elections in December, 69 have more women than they had in the previous term (55.6%), while 28 had no change and just 27 have fewer women.
The following map shows the change in proportion between 2016-17 and 2021. Councils which had increased representation of women are scattered all over the state.
Now that the number of women on councils has almost cracked 40%, that is enough to result in a lot more councils electing a majority of women.
There were just two such councils in 2004, then seven in 2008 and 2011-12, and ten in 2016-17 (despite a reduction in council numbers). That number is now 27.
This next chart shows that dramatic change as a proportion of the total number of councils.
This trend is even more dramatic when you adjust for council size. Over 30% of enrolled voters live in a council that now has a female majority.
There is a general trend that bigger councils tend to elect more women. We already discussed how Greater Sydney was outpacing regional NSW, but it’s also true if we look at the 25 big councils I profiled for this election, along with their predecessors in 2011-12. 45% of councillors on these councils are women (excluding Central Coast, which did not hold an election), compared to 37.65% for every other council.
This next map can be toggled to show the results for each council at the last three elections – blue indicates a male majority, red a female majority. The 2011-12 map is a sea of blue. In Sydney there are just four female majority councils, along with four other tied councils.
Things change a little in 2016-17, but there are only seven female majority councils. But in 2021, the picture looks quite different.
I particularly found the trend interesting across Sydney on the 2021 map. There has been a lot of analysis looking at how you can draw a line between the north-west and the south-east and split the city into two halves. One richer, more educated and with better facilities, the other less well serviced and poorer. It’s sometimes called the “latte line” or the “Red Rooster line“. That line comes up very clearly on the 2021 map. There is a block of ten councils with a majority of women, with five male majority councils lying within that area. You can argue this area should also include the Hills, Strathfield and Burwood, at which point it’s a 10-8 split in favour of female majority councils.
Meanwhile in the remainder of Sydney there is just one female majority council, although there are a number of other councils with only one more man than woman: Liverpool, Canterbury-Bankstown, Sutherland, Bayside, Strathfield and the Hills.
I was also asked about how many councils are all men or all women. The answer is: none. Every single council in NSW has at least one man and at least one woman as of 2021. There are five councils with a single woman: Blayney, Dungog, Goulburn Mulwaree, Mid-Western and Port Stephens. The City of Sydney has 70% women, the largest proportion in the state. Interestingly, the City has held that ratio for at least three terms. The City of Newcastle is not far behind with 9/13 women, or 69.2%, with a few others at 66.7%.
There were four all-male councils in 2016-17, and five in 2011-12.
Finally, I was asked to look at the role of different parties in the shifting gender balance. Is it just that some parties are preselecting more women? The answer is no, the trend exists everywhere.
The Greens have the most women on councils, but even they have seen a trend over the last three elections. Half of all Greens councillors in 2011-12 were women, but now almost two thirds are.
Just 28.5% of Labor councillors were women in 2011-12, but now they are almost at parity. There are just four more male Labor councillors than female.
In just one election cycle the number of Liberal councillors has jumped from 24% to 35%. It probably helped that the party dumped a bunch of councillors in Sydney.
And for the independents, who are by far the biggest group, they have increased from 26% in 2011-12 to almost 40% in 2021.