Pursuing gender parity in the public sector: women leaders’ views

By on 06/02/2023 | Updated on 04/07/2023
Graphic by Jack Aldane

At a webinar on how to achieve gender parity in civil and public services, leaders from Canada and South Africa shared their own experiences as women in government, their respective public services’ journey towards gender equality, and discussed what more needs to be done

Global Government Forum’s latest Women Leaders Index found that the mean proportion of women leaders in G20 countries’ civil and public services is just 29.3% – and while some governments have dramatically increased representation of women in their bureaucracy’s senior roles, most are a long way from achieving gender parity.

At a webinar last month, the Women Leaders Index author and senior female public servants from Canada and South Africa – two of the highest ranking G20 countries in the Index – discussed why women’s voices are so important in the design and delivery of policy and public services; what barriers they faced in their own careers and how they overcome them; and what civil and public services can do to improve representation of women in their senior ranks.   

Here, we present snippets of the conversation with accompanying clips from the webinar.

First, Mia Hunt, editor of globalgovernmentforum.com and author of the Women Leaders Index, talked the webinar’s live audience through the key findings of the 2022 Index, which also ranks European Union and OECD countries, measures progress over time, and compares the proportion of women in the public sector to those in government, politicians in parliament or equivalent, and those on the boards of private sector companies.

Read the full Women Leaders Index 2022 at www.womenleadersindex.com, which includes an in-depth look at the data, and case studies.

Drawing on her own experiences, Sarah Paquet, director and chief executive of FINTRAC, Canada – who is a strong supporter of women in the public sector, particularly in digital and STEM roles, and who has won awards for her commitment to boosting gender diversity – recalled the misogynist comments she received from male colleagues and why she decided she was going to start speaking out and make change.

And she urged others to do the same.

Emphasising the importance of women having an equal voice in decision-making, she spoke of women’s attributes and how they contribute to a better world.

She also noted how crucial it is for any public service, even those that have reached (as Canada has) or are approaching gender parity in top roles, to continue making progress or risk slipping back.

In her opening comments, Zukiswa Mqolomba, deputy chairperson of South Africa’s Public Service Commission – who was also interviewed for the Women Leaders Index – focused on the empowerment of women leaders in government being key to the empowerment of women in society at large.

She explained that South Africa had adopted a strategic framework which states that women should make up 50% of the ministerial positions in government and 50% of the leadership positions in the public service, and set out the business case for achieving gender parity.

However, while South Africa is just 1.4 percentage points off reaching gender parity in the top ranks of its public service – it comes third in the Women Leaders Index G20 ranking – Mqolomba explained that women are not given the respect enjoyed by their male peers. Even those in top positions are not necessarily taken seriously and are often seen as weaker and as inferior to men, she said, and she explained why.

She agreed with Paquet’s point about raising other women up, and the value of female leaders’ working to ensure that the women following behind them have an easier path to success than they did. She called on the global community to fight for women’s rights.

She ended her opening comments with a heartfelt call to action.

Moving on the questions from the audience, the webinar’s host Siobhan Benita kicked off with a question about whether, given that women tend to have the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities, the hybrid working arrangements being adopted post-pandemic were positive for women – or if there was a risk that women who worked remotely would feel excluded from their teams and from decision-making.

Paquet said that hybrid working was likely to be positive for women. 

Mqolomba’s view was that remote and hybrid working had been good thing for women – indeed, for most people – in terms of work/life balance but that more research was needed to determine the impact of hybrid work on women, and so that decisions about hybrid working going forward could be based on evidence. 

In response to a question about how women can overcome imposter syndrome in the workplace and the tendency to feel they are not good enough or not as good as male colleagues, Paquet didn’t mince her words.

Mqolomba’s advice was also succinct.

Asked by a member of the audience what they are doing personally to ensure gender parity continues to be a discussion at management tables, Paquet and Mqolomba gave examples of measures they had taken that could be replicated by leaders in other countries.

Mqolomba added that her activism and her role in coaching and mentoring women are key. 

Paquet said she is known for being an advocate for women in the Canadian public service and as such, when she joins an organisation, her new colleagues know she will focus on making change. When she joined one agency, for example, she tasked it with meeting the ‘50/30 Challenge’ – a commitment to meeting gender parity and 30% representation of other under-represented groups in senior management positions – she made it join the Association Against Racism, and she launched a career development programme specifically for women.

She reiterated that day-to-day what is crucial is not allowing unacceptable behaviour.

Next, Paquet and Mqolomba were asked what three key pieces of advice they would give young women entering the public sector. Paquet answered first.

Mqolomba’s advice centred on self-belief, the importance of mentorship and building connections, and on skills development.

Her third piece of advice to young female civil servants is to focus on education, qualifications and skills development so that when opportunities arise, they are better placed to grab those opportunities and to succeed.

One of the women watching the webinar asked to what extent men are allies of their female colleagues and how men could play a role in driving progress towards gender parity.

Paquet said that in her experience men don’t have the same drive to push the issue but that 30% are already great allies, 30% have the potential to be great allies, and 30% will take a bit longer to bring along on the journey. She said that rather than focusing on the 30% who are resistant, the priority should be on recruiting those with potential to the cause.

Mqolomba highlighted the scale of problem in South Africa, going back to her earlier point about the often chauvinistic nature of society there. 

The conversation came back to women’s caregiving responsibilities. Statistics show that when women take an extended period of time off – for maternity leave or to look after an elderly relative, for example – their career rarely reaches the height it might have done had they not taken time out. Panellists were asked what they think leaders and organisations can do to make sure that women aren’t disadvantaged by these kinds of responsibilities.

Mqolomba highlighted moves by some countries to adopt shared parental leave policies whereby men and women can share time taken to look after a new baby more evenly.

Paquet explained that when her first child was born, there was no maternity leave policy so she had no choice but to take holiday and for her husband to ask for time off to look after the baby – and that that meant taking 15 months off without pay.

Things have changed since then. Canada now offers paternity leave, which Paquet said is making a “huge difference”, and the federal government is also looking at rolling out low-cost childcare across the country inspired by the province of Quebec, which began offering C$5 daycare more than 20 years ago. 

She added that mindset plays a part too. She was promoted during each of her three pregnancies because she put herself forward for roles regardless of what her personal circumstances were at the time. In her view, women shouldn’t feel they need to withdraw from opportunities because they know they are going to be taking time off.

More broadly, leaders need to think carefully about how they approach matters such as maternity leave, she said, recalling that she has at times needed to persuade colleagues not to penalise a woman in a performance management review simply because she had been on maternity leave for half of the period in question.  

Ending the women leaders webinar, she said:

To learn all this and more, you can watch the 75-minute webinar Women Leaders: how to achieve gender parity in public and civil services around the world via our dedicated event page. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum, was held on 19 January 2023.

Global Government Forum is planning to set up a network for women in civil and public services around the world, so if you have any suggestions on what you’d like to get out of a women’s network, we’d love you hear from you – please email your thoughts to [email protected]

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