Queen celebrates diversity with female civil service leaders

By on 05/03/2017 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Her Majesty The Queen

Female permanent secretaries, past and present, gathered at Buckingham Palace to celebrate diversity in the UK civil service with the Queen last month.

A reception was held in the Queen’s Gallery to acknowledge the pace at which women are being appointed to the top of Whitehall – described by the Cabinet Office as “the fastest rate in history”. One in three permanent secretary positions in the past two and a half years have gone to women.

Including Antonia Romeo – the newly confirmed permanent secretary at the Department of International Trade, who takes up her role in March – there are currently 10 women heading up Whitehall departments, out of a total of 39. There have been 35 female permanent secretaries in the UK in total.

Sue Owen, civil service diversity champion and permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said: “Women make up more than half the civil service and we benefit from their skills.

“It is absolutely right that women should be properly represented at the highest levels. Whilst the first female permanent secretary was appointed in 1955, it is only in the last decade or so that real progress has been made.”

“We want this trend to intensify. We will support women at every level to achieve their full potential and to know they can reach the very top.”

Some key civil service departments, such as the Treasury and the Foreign Office, have still never been led by a woman. Research published in 2015 by the Institute for Government think tank, based on interviews with female senior civil servants, found that many believe that gender equality is improving only slowly and that some of the reforms designed to promote diversity have under-performed.

Ursula Brennan, former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, told the researchers that the civil service has a lot of “untapped” female talent.

The first female permanent secretary was Baroness Evelyn Sharp, who headed the Ministry of Housing and Local Government from 1955, three years after Queen Elizabeth II took the throne. She joined the civil service fast stream in 1926, a year after women were permitted to apply.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, said that Whitehall aims to be the most inclusive employer in the UK.

“Currently, over 40% of the senior civil service are women,” he commented. “But there is still more to do, which is why we are determined to build on our progress to date by removing any remaining barriers for women and other underrepresented groups in the civil service.”

Since the launch of the civil service talent action plan in 2014, mentoring, women’s networks and flexible working have been more firmly embedded in Whitehall, while the number of job shares has increased and all-male interview panels have been banned.

Global Government Forum regularly conducts research on the issues around women in public sector leadership roles, last year publishing a major report on progress around the world. This Wednesday marks International Women’s Day, which Global Government Forum will be marking with dedicated news and features.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

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About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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