Glass ceiling beginning to crack in upper echelons of many countries’ civil services

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 10/10/2017
The Women Leaders G20 Index 2016/2017

New research reveals huge disparity in gender equality among top officials across the G20 and EU, but the overall trend is positive. Tania Mason highlights the countries making progress on women leaders – and those with a long way to go

Just two years ago, there was not a single woman in the topmost grades of Saudi Arabia’s civil service. Those jobs were strictly reserved for men.

As a result, the deeply conservative Islamic kingdom occupied last place in the table ranking G20 countries by the proportion of women in its senior civil service ranks – and had done since Global Government Forum began tracking the data in 2013.

But last year, in a bid to help the country build the institutional capacity and capabilities needed to achieve the ambitious goals of ‘Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030’, the ‘National Transformation Program 2020’ was launched across 24 government bodies.

One of the strategic objectives of Vision 2030 is to “empower women and materialise their potentials”. As part of this, Saudi Arabia has set a target of raising the proportion of women in Grade 11 of the civil service and above from 1.27% in 2016 to 5% by 2020.

While a 5% target may be considered derisory by Western standards, it represents a big leap forward for a nation that still forbids women from driving cars or opening bank accounts without their husband’s permission. (That said, it should be remembered that the Kingdom is still the worst performing member of the G20 by a margin of two percentage points.)

Hearteningly, Saudi Arabia’s efforts are also indicative of the overall trend among the world’s largest economies. Data collected by Global Government Forum for the fourth Public Sector Women Leaders Index shows that the proportion of women in senior civil service posts across the whole G20 rose by 1.5 percentage points last year and now averages 26.4%.

Of course, the overall average masks great disparity among individual states. While Saudi Arabia forms part of a group of socially conservative countries seemingly mired at the bottom of the table, at the top of the leaderboard is a group of developed Western nations inching slowly but inexorably towards parity.

Leading lights

First-placed Canada is deserving of special praise. Having occupied the top spot since Global Government Forum began researching this subject in 2013, Canada now has 46.4% women leaders. It helps that leadership on the issue of gender equality continues to be shown at the very highest level in Canada: one of the first actions of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015 was to announce his Cabinet, which quite deliberately comprised half women and half men.

What’s more, the country’s most senior civil servant, Michael Wernick, clerk of Canada’s Privy Council, is confident it will reach parity soon. “There have been successive waves of leadership from people in my job and deputy minister jobs to increase the supply chain and the feeder pool,” he says.

“First there were the real pioneers, the first women in jobs or at various tables. Then the second wave was probably in the 90s, when you saw more and more women in positions of responsibility and the numbers started to move up quite a bit.  We’ve already had a woman Prime Minister and a woman chief justice and two of my predecessors as cabinet secretary were women.”

Now, however, Wernick believes Canada has embarked on the next stage in its transformation on gender equality. “Now we’re in the third wave which is more about workplace culture – how meetings are conducted, avoiding ‘mansplaining’ and ‘manterruption’, tackling unconscious bias, that more subtle and nuanced stuff,” he says. “In fact we’re beyond binary gender now in Canada. We’re talking about transgender and that sort of thing.”

Wernick adds that women are also benefiting from the evolution of leadership styles in the modern world. “The public service I joined in the 1980s had a lot of yellers and screamers and ashtray-throwers,” he recalls. “That’s just not a successful strategy any more.”

Nipping hard at Canada’s heels – and making faster progress – is second-placed Australia, which has improved steadily from 37% women in 2013 to 43.3% this year. Yet according to Dr Martin Parkinson, secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the view within the Australian Public Service is that “we haven’t moved as fast as we would have liked”.

At the very highest level of the APS, just six of the 18 secretaries are currently female.  As a result, there is now a renewed focus across the organisation to advance the cause. One manifestation of this is the APS-wide Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2019, under which all departments are charged with setting themselves ambitious stretch targets. They were due to publish their plans for meeting the targets online by the end of April 2017 and the majority have now done so.

Australia has also set a target of equal numbers of men and women on its government boards, which include policy advisory boards, Government Business Enterprises and review and inquiry boards. Recognising that certain boards in traditionally male-dominated industries or sectors might find it hard to achieve parity, the aim is for 50/50 in aggregate, with each individual board required to have at least 40% women.

The strategy has already had a big impact. “A total of 41% of all positions on government boards are now held by women and 32% of all chair and deputy chair roles,” says Parkinson. “That’s a big increase from where we were.”

Table trailers

Languishing at the other end of the leaderboard along with Saudi Arabia is a group of socially conservative states where cultural and societal factors play just as big a role in keeping women out of top jobs as any government recruitment practices.

Although not at the very bottom of the table, Turkey deserves special mention for being the only G20 country to have reduced the proportion of women in its senior civil service year after year. From its already low base of 13.6% women in 2013, Turkey’s percentage has drifted steadily downwards and now stands at just 8.8%. According to data from the State Personnel Administration, in February 2017 there was one female deputy secretary, six general directors, 34 deputy general directors and 369  department heads.

The purges of the civil service and other public authorities that followed last year’s coup attempt have not helped matters. Tens of thousands of state employees were removed from their jobs as the ruling AK party sought to rid the corridors of power of sympathisers of Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric who the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes was behind the putsch. As a result, unemployment rates have risen sharply, particularly among women and those with university degrees.

EU results and women leaders elsewhere in society

For the first time this year, the Women Leaders Index also tracked the European Union states and they too paint an interesting picture. Although the EU data refers to just the top two civil service grades in member states, whereas the G20 figures cover the top five, it is clear that the EU is much more advanced on gender equality than the G20 cohort. Among all 28 EU nations the average is 40% women and five countries (Slovenia, Romania, Latvia, Greece and Bulgaria) have already surpassed parity, with more than half of their most senior officials women.

The research also examines how women in each of the G20 states fare on other measures: the proportion of female MPs and cabinet ministers, as well as seats on the boards of publicly-quoted companies. There are some interesting variations. For instance, those countries that score well on public sector leadership do not always replicate the achievement elsewhere in their societies. What cannot be denied is the effectiveness of quotas. Where quotas have been introduced, across all metrics, female representation is noticeably higher and change occurs much more quickly.

Alongside the raw data, the report captures views and assessments from serving and former senior officials, academics, campaigners and other relevant experts in several countries.  These include Dr Martin Parkinson in Australia; Lord O’Donnell, former head of the UK Civil Service; David Cagney, chief human resources officer in Ireland’s Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Lorena Cruz Sanchez, president of Mexico’s national women’s institute; and Juha Sarkio, director general of the Personnel and Governance Policy Department in Finland.

The online tool is available at:

Full findings, interviews, case studies and analysis can be found in the Women’s Leaders Index report 2016-17

See also our Women Leaders Index News Story: Canada tops gender equality ranking – but Australia gaining fast

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

One Comment

  1. NI says:

    Very interesting.
    Taking religous background into consideration, Japan might be the last.
    A matter for regret as a Japanese.

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