Wigan Council's chief executive speaks out on equality on International Women's Day

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Men have long been the decision-makers sitting in seats of power at the top of the majority of organisations.

But that is all changing, following decades of campaigning and concerted action to ensure women have just as many opportunities to fill these top jobs as men.

This change can clearly be seen in Wigan, where women are at the helm of many organisations in the public, private and voluntary sector.

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Mary Fleming is the interim chief executive at Wigan’s hospitals trust, Anna Dawe is the principal of Wigan and Leigh College, Keely Dalfen is chief executive of The Brick, Jo Carby holds the same position at Wigan and Leigh Hospice, Emily Higham was chief superintendent of Wigan police, and the list goes on.

Alison McKenzie-Folan, chief executive of Wigan CouncilAlison McKenzie-Folan, chief executive of Wigan Council
Alison McKenzie-Folan, chief executive of Wigan Council

To mark International Women’s Day, we spoke to Alison McKenzie-Folan, who has been the chief executive of Wigan Council since 2019.

It is a big job leading an organisation which plays a part in the lives of everyone in the borough, but one she has not shied away from.

Mrs McKenzie-Folan said: “It’s absolutely the best job in the world. I have worked here for 15 years so I think by staying in a place for 15 years, it shows how much you love it.

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"I am incredibly proud to be the chief executive of this council because I get the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues, an amazing team, amazing community groups, brilliant businesses who all have at the core the same vested interest, because what we want is the best for the borough and the people.”

She previously worked in the civil service and the NHS, but it was during her first proper job as a factory inspector 34 years ago when she saw the problems some women faced in industry.

She said: “That was very male-dominated and I worked with virtually all men. I was going into male-dominated engineering, nuclear, construction sites, factories, organisations. That could be quite isolating, it could be quite challenging, particularly if you were in a difficult situation.”

Overall though, Mrs McKenzie-Folan does not feel she has faced too many setbacks during her career due to being a woman.

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"I feel really lucky,” she said. “I have lots of support around me and worked with some really amazing people. I say you always remember your great boss and I have had lots of them in the past.”

She says things have changed “considerably” for women over the years.

"Things are much better in terms of being aware of working in an inclusive environment and everybody has got a voice that can be heard,” she said.

The local authority plays a key role in the lives of everyone living in Wigan borough, something Mrs McKenzie-Folan is keenly aware of on International Women’s Day.

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She said: “What I feel that we have, in terms of our role as a council, is the ability to bring people together to shape awareness, bringing people together to talk abut important and difficult issues and concerns that people raise. We take our role seriously in this space of having responsibility and having leadership.

"I think, the second thing to say is, that where we can play a proactive approach, we will do things proactively and we are not afraid to do that.

"If there are things the council should be campaigning on, things like equality, we will do that, because we believe everyone has the right to live in an inclusive environment, particularly women and girls.”

Around 65 per cent of senior managers in the council are women and they make up 68 per cent of the total workforce, employed in roles including engineering, environmental services and enforcement, as well as those jobs traditionally filled by women.

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The council does not have a gender pay gap and last year we reported women earned more than their male colleagues.

When it comes to councillors, there are 44 men and 31 women, with three women among the eight cabinet members and four among the seven lead members.

The local authority works with partner organisations to improve opportunities for women in the borough, for example by raising the aspirations of girls in schools and colleges through apprenticeships, work placements and work shadowing.

There is work with Wigan and Leigh College around engineering, nuclear science and health and social care, as well as opportunities through the civic partnership with Edge Hill University.

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Work is also done across Greater Manchester, with the Digital Her initiative highlighting opportunities in the tech industry.

The council has targeted domestic abuse through its Love Is Not Abuse campaign and raised awareness of gender inequality through its Believe In Her campaign.

Mrs McKenzie-Folan said: “As a council we are doing a whole range of stuff that you would expect us to do. The reason why we are doing it is because that fight for equality still exists.

"The gender pay gap is about 15 per cent so we still have a pay problem in society. Figures for women sitting in senior positions on boards have not grown.

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"If we get to more serious issues, with the rise of misogyny and sexism in society, we have some real issues. We have some real issues around domestic violence in the borough and most of it is violence towards women.

"Taking all these issues really seriously means we have to continue to have this conversation.”

Mrs McKenzie-Folan has been discussing the issues faced by women and girls at events this week as part of International Women’s Day.

But she is also celebrating the inspiring women in the borough, such as those featured on stars in Believe Square in Wigan and outside Leigh Town Hall.

She will join 350 people for a special event today at The Edge to mark the occasion.​

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