Report: Gender Equality among Civil Service Leaders

By on 21/01/2016 | Updated on 25/09/2020

New research reveals the progress made on closing the gender gap among the UK’s top officials. Matt Ross asks serving and former leaders which policies and reforms got the best results

If you treasure it, measure it,” says Lord O’Donnell, the UK’s former head of the civil service and cabinet secretary to three prime ministers. During his time at the top, O’Donnell introduced metrics and targets for the proportion of women among high-ranking officials – and as a result, the country has robust data on gender equality across its senior civil service.

O’Donnell used that data to push departments to raise their game. “That transparency meant that people asked the questions: ‘Why is department A so far behind department B?’,” he tells Departments responded by removing the barriers that had prevented talented women and minorities from rising to the top, widening the management talent pool – and ultimately raising the quality of civil service leadership.

So the UK has made substantial progress since O’Donnell became cabinet secretary a decade ago – but is it doing better than other comparable nations? Which countries have the highest proportions of senior female officials, and which are making the fastest progress? Answering these questions helps identify the policies and reforms which have proved most effective in boosting gender equality – and to do so, got together with global consultancy EY and produced a Global Public Sector Women Leaders Index: a dataset tracking the proportion of female senior civil servants in each of the G20 nations.

EY is now publishing the main findings at a global level: top of the list is Canada, with 46.1% women amongst its top officials; then comes Australia, on 40.1%; South Africa, 39.8%; the UK, 38.7%; Brazil, 35.4%; and the USA, 34.0%. In fourth place, the UK is the top European country – and by quite a distance: the next EU nation is Italy in eighth place (32.0%), whilst France comes in 12th (28.0%) and Germany 13th (21.0%).

EY Womens Graphic 1 for feature

Source: EY

What’s more, the UK has made consistent progress ever since the first Women Leaders Index was produced in 2013: among the top six nations, only South Africa has beaten the UK’s 3.7 percentage point rise over that period, and over the last year the UK showed the strongest growth of the six. Other European countries are now making good progress – Italy and Germany showed growth of 4.0 points last year, and France 3.0 – but the UK is so far ahead that it’s set to lead the way within the EU for some time yet.

To run alongside the global figures, EY’s UK arm asked to produce a report presenting and analysing the British data. This has now been published, drawing on the Women Leaders Index and Office of National Statistics data to profile progress across across the UK civil service. To complement this analytical EY report, we’ve conducted extensive interviews with serving and former UK officials, asking for their experiences and opinions on boosting gender equality among high-ranking civil servants. Their answer, in a nutshell, is strong leadership.

How we got here

Asked how the UK’s made consistent progress, Sir Paul Jenkins – a former permanent secretary of the Treasury Solicitor’s Office and civil service diversity and equality champion – says the answer is a “combination of leadership, leadership, leadership, and then a range of specific tools which the leaders use to provide not just noisy, visible leadership, but also hard-edged leadership”.

In other words, it requires top leaders to both talk the talk, and introduce new systems, processes or metrics that enable – and force – other managers to walk the walk. Dr Catherine Haddon, a fellow at the Institute for Government and author of the report Women and Whitehall, says when her interviewees “talked about what changed things in particular departments, they usually talked about the role of the permanent secretary and top leadership team. People believe it when they see it – and that’s what stayed in people’s minds with Gus [O’Donnell]: the appointments he made and the team he was leading.”

For his part, O’Donnell points to changing perceptions of what makes an effective leader: “In the past, we defined leadership rather badly as being good at your previous job – as being an expert,” he says. “But now we talk about leaders as people with EQ [emotional quotient] as well as IQ; who can bring people on; who can listen as well as talk.” This model places greater value on some of the skills and attributes in which women tend to be strong, O’Donnell explains: the new approach “was put in place to improve the quality of leadership, and as it happens it’s benefited women.”

Gus ODonnell for Mental Health Story

Lord O’Donnell explains: the new approach “was put in place to improve the quality of leadership, and as it happens it’s benefited women.”

Meanwhile, the Civil Service introduced more flexible working patterns. This was “one of the biggest contributing factors” supporting women’s advance through the ranks, says Jenkins: it meant that they could keep their civil service careers moving whilst caring for children or parents, and provided a powerful recruitment tool. “These days graduates look at the top of an organisation, and if it looks like the organisation is delivering all the way through, you get a virtuous circle,” he adds. So if an employer shows that women can make it to the top, more women will apply for jobs – thus creating a greater talent pool from which to draw the next generation of women leaders.

A brief hiatus

The civil service’s 2008 diversity strategy said that by 2013, 39% of the SCS should be women; yet when the targets lapsed in 2013, the figure still lay at 35%. By that time the coalition government was in power; and in Jenkins’ view, it wasn’t very interested in diversity. “What I saw in my time as diversity champion [2011-14] was political indifference to diversity as an issue,” says Jenkins. “Essentially, it got held hostage until ministers were satisfied that civil service reform was on track.”

Source: EY

O’Donnell’s replacement as head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, achieved a lot in his own department (the Department for Communities and Local Government – see below), but the wider agenda lost momentum until – says Jenkins – Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, took on the additional role of head of the civil service in 2014. “He really pushed it, and once the Civil Service Reform Plan had been agreed they started off again.”

Jenkins believes that this pause had a significant and damaging impact. “Deep down in organisations, there’s always quite a lot of cynicism about how serious people at the top are about things like diversity, and if you don’t push it forward with full vigour it fosters that cynicism in ways which are quite damaging,” he says. But he praises Heywood for replacing the lapsed targets with a new set of objectives built into permanent secretaries’ performance appraisals. “There’s constant pressure from all around the system for people’s hobby horses to make it into performance targets,” he says. “Putting diversity there is fantastic.”

If these new permanent secretary objectives are met, Heywood has said, there “will be a further step improvement in our performance on this agenda”; and meanwhile, the civil service is belatedly reaching its 2013 target. However, performance varies widely between departments – and a closer look at different parts of the civil service reveals lessons about the approaches and techniques which have proved most effective.

Lessons from the high performers

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), for example, has expanded its proportion of women leaders from 38 to 50% since 2011 – even whilst its senior civil service (SCS) workforce has shrunk from 130 to 80. “We’ve had a big cuts process and the worry was that it could really damage diversity,” comments Jenkins. “So to have continued the progress is extremely good. If one assumes the cuts are going to be done on merit, then possibly that shows the women were actually better performers than the men.”

Despite Sir Bob Kerslake’s inability to move the diversity agenda forwards across Whitehall, Jenkins adds, “he showed that you can make a difference” as a departmental leader. The department’s new permanent secretary, Melanie Dawes, is also the civil service gender champion – so DCLG is well equipped to continue leading the way.

The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has also managed an impressive 12-point rise over that period, though from a lower base: it now has a 40% female SCS. Its permanent secretary Clare Moriarty tells that talented women had been bunching in the grades just below deputy director level, so when the department made a further push on diversity – by, for example, eliminating all-male shortlists in job interviews – it enjoyed fast growth in women leaders. There’s a similar story at her former employer the Department of Transport, Moriarty adds.

Clare Moriarty, Defra’s Permanent Secretary and a former senior leader at Department for Transport.

Clare Moriarty tells GGF that talented women had been bunching in the grades just below deputy director level

Defra can show unusual progress in a related field: it is the only department where the SCS pay gap favours women. This is a new phenomenon, explains Moriarty, and a result of the marginal loosening in the controls over civil service pay established under the austerity agenda. “We had quite a few women who’d been promoted into the SCS then languished at the bottom of the pay grade,” she explains. When Defra won some flexibility on salaries, it “targeted pay increases at those at the bottom of the pay range, and that’s enabled us to push the pay gap the other way.” The department’s 1.5% differential, she adds, is not statistically significant – such gaps only become meaningful when they creep above about 3%.

The Welsh Government has done well in recent years, increasing its female SCS by nine points since 2011 to 47%. Like Moriarty, Welsh permanent secretary Sir Derek Jones has concentrated on helping women stuck in the SCS ‘feeder’ grades, offering coaching and advice on what recruiters are looking for. This has helped address some of the confidence issues that can hold women back – and over the last two years, the proportion of female applicants for SCS posts has grown by eight points to 44%. “The feedback from these [advice] sessions suggests that demystifying the process in this practical, face-to-face way has definitely encouraged some of our female colleagues to apply for roles they otherwise might not have applied for,” Jones comments.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has 44% women SCS – and when its agencies are excluded the figure rises to 48% of SCS, including about half of the top team. Permanent secretary Martin Donnelly wrote last year about the department’s change programme, which began with informal talks and developed into practical activities such as “keeping a closer watch on our female talent pipeline; finding supportive buddies for our staff balancing complex jobs and part-time hours; and rolling out unconscious bias training for all our senior managers”. To help staff ease back into work after maternity leave, he added, BIS offers all returning women leaders “a guaranteed 6-month job for however many days they want, which provides some with the ‘bridge’ they needed between time off and the next big job”.

Donnelly, comments O’Donnell, is “a classic example of a leader who’s good at listening, inclusive, and very much in the principle of meritocracy: bring on the best people.”

Views on moving to the next level

Contributors to this report emphasised that progress on gender equality requires work on a wide range of fronts – from convincing women that they have a chance of winning senior jobs, to introducing and defending flexible working patterns. But the key actions fall broadly into four camps: leadership, culture, systems and data.


In 2015, the Hay Group – commissioned by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to examine SCS gender equality – warned bluntly that “leaders aren’t leading”. But things have moved on since, not least in giving the permanent secretaries diversity objectives: Jenkins explains that their offices will now be sending strong signals that departmental staff must make this a priority. Permanent secretaries can hasten progress, he argues, by setting out their ambitions in future years, and by incorporating their own objectives into the appraisals of more junior managers. “They need to cascade those performance measures down through the system – and quite far down,” he says.

Leadership has also strengthened at the centre, with renewed focus from the central HR function and the creation of a dedicated Diversity & Inclusion Team. But the Hay Group has called for further reforms, including creating alternative career routes for subject experts who may not make good organisational leaders – pursuing O’Donnell’s line on changing models of leadership – and combining the Civil Service’s talent management and diversity strategies. Una O’Brien, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, says that the key is to maintain momentum: “We have to stay focused on tracking delivery and show that senior people care about this, and that it’s not a ‘fair weather’ issue,” she argues.

Una O’Brien: “We have to stay focused on tracking delivery and show that senior people care about this, and that it’s not a ‘fair weather’ issue”

Dame Una O’Brien: “We have to stay focused on tracking delivery and show that senior people care about this, and that it’s not a ‘fair weather’ issue”

Several interviewees also mentioned the importance of ministers’ attitudes. “The civil service is intimately intertwined with politics,” comments O’Donnell. “If the civil service’s decision-making leaders, the politicians, are predominantly male, that will have a negative impact – and our progress there is much more limited.” There are seven women in the UK’s 22-strong Cabinet (32%), and interviewees suggested that male ministers may be less likely to accept flexible working in private office teams or approve management time going into diversity work. “It’s about them understanding why permanent secretaries need to spend time on this, and thinking about what they ask of their own teams,” says Catherine Haddon.


The Hay Group report talks of a “bear-pit” and argued that “the area requiring most work is changing people’s perceptions. At present many people, and women in particular, do not believe the rhetoric on policy, promotions, or what is valued in the SCS. Accordingly, many choose to opt out.” Moriarty agrees that “it’s all about culture at this point”, arguing that “the key to getting true equality” is the creation of attitudes and systems that place a fair value on different capabilities. “A woman performing well can look quite different to a man performing well,” she comments.

“You’ve got to recognise that however much you think you’re doing the right thing, you’re carrying around a whole heap of assumptions which leak into everything you do,” Moriarty adds. These assumptions can slow progress towards equality even after all the biggest barriers have been removed, says Wales’s Sir Derek Jones: “When an organisation is drawing closer to meeting the 50:50 target, it can be harder to find the levers for change that will push you over the line to achieving real parity,” he argues. “A lot of the obvious things, in terms of process and development work, will have been done. What tends to be harder to tackle is the behavioural element – much of which is influenced by our background and perceptions.”

From next April, Jones explains, everyone sitting on interview panels and all internal job candidates in the Welsh Government will need to have undertaken unconscious bias training. BIS has also rolled out such training across its top team, and the Hay Group report urges departments to provide it for all SCS and those sitting on selection panels.

Meanwhile, points out Una O’Brien, the Civil Service is introducing anonymised job interviewee selection processes, removing names, schools and universities from application forms: “We’ve already proved in how it’s used on the Fast Stream [graduate trainee programme] that it can strengthen diversity.”

The expectation that all selection panels include a women, says Jenkins, helps “challenge any culture ‘little me-ism’, but also helps those coming forward to feel that they might be welcome in this world.” He urges departments to consider widening panels to include people of grades that will be managed by the successful applicant, making it easier to recruit female interviewers and bringing a new perspective to the selection process.

Clare Moriarty’s experiences at DfT and Defra have convinced her of the value of women’s networks – both in preparing and supporting women to win senior jobs, and in identifying and addressing the barriers to progress. Mentoring systems are important here: the Hay Group argues that permanent secretaries should each begin mentoring two women in top leadership roles, suggesting that non-executive directors should also get involved.

Derek Jones explains that, from next April everyone sitting on interview panels and all internal job candidates in the Welsh Government will need to have undertaken unconscious bias training.

Sir Derek Jones explains that, from next April everyone sitting on interview panels and all internal job candidates in the Welsh Government will need to have undertaken unconscious bias training.


Interviewees agree that the key facilitating system is flexible working, now well established in the Civil Service – but the Hay Group found that “the interpretation of these policies by department and line manager varies enormously.”

At the Department of Health, O’Brien has three women among her seven directors-general, plus 49% of the department’s SCS. She argues that the part-time jobs taken by women with childcare responsibilities leave them lacking the “range and depth of experience of their male counterparts” later in their careers – and this puts them at a disadvantage when going for top positions.

“We need really capable women to be ready to step forward to do the most challenging jobs, and you have to get that experience in your 20s and 30s – when your family is going to be your equal priority. But too often it’s difficult to turn a difficult job into a part-time role,” she explains. Some women want to squeeze tough jobs into four-day weeks, she adds, but “that pressure can be enormous”.

To open these jobs up to women in mid-career, O’Brien has concentrated on breaking “big, difficult jobs” into two part-time roles, each taking three days per week. This adds to the salary bill, she notes, but “you’re not paying for duplication on the overlap day: you’re paying for better work and the benefit of two brains on the subject.”

Jenkins notes that such success requires top leaders not only to introduce these systems, but also to defend them under criticism. “Standing up for these working patterns is a key element of leadership when people complain,” he observes.


There is little appetite among top leaders for the reintroduction of targets governing the proportion of women in the SCS, but universal calls for greater data transparency. “You can argue about whether [targets] are a good thing or not,” says Moriarty, “ but they do ensure that people are focusing on the issue and asking the questions. So it’s helped by monitoring: not having a target, but collecting and publishing information”. The Hay Group argued that the publication of data on gender diversity “should be mandated” within “the new Departmental Improvement Plans, which would provide a way to ‘mainstream’ this work.”

Better use of data could also enable the civil service to monitor the demographic of staff entering the grade 6 and 7 ‘feeder grades’ more closely, says Jenkins. And the unpublished, raw data behind the Civil Service People Survey, he notes, enables senior managers to pinpoint teams which have a problem with bullying or discrimination.

Indeed, some of the 2014 People Survey data suggests links between weak performance on raising the proportion of women leaders, and heightened perceptions of discrimination. In the six UK departments at the top of the women leaders table, 7.8% of staff said that they’d personally experienced discrimination during the previous year; this figure rose to 9.1% in the middle seven, and to 10.1% in the bottom seven. In the three departments with the lowest proportions of women leaders – the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office – between 12 and 13% of staff complained about discrimination.

These differences are fairly small, but point to a rich seam of data that can enable managers to identify particular problem areas within struggling organisations.

Sir Paul Jenkins: “Standing up for these working patterns is a key element of leadership when people complain”

Sir Paul Jenkins: “Standing up for these working patterns is a key element of leadership when people complain”

Building a virtuous circle

Many of the problems that traditionally restricted the number of female SCS have now been addressed – some of them over decades. “If you go back to the late 1970s and early ‘80s, only about a third of undergraduates were women,” points out O’Brien – and when, years later, those generations of students reached the SCS, that shortfall of women had persisted. But universities have been pretty evenly balanced for years now: “We’re at the point where that should start to matter a lot less, and it shouldn’t be seen as an excuse any more,” O’Brien says firmly. “We need to set our expectations very clearly that we want to see equal numbers of men and women in the top jobs.”

Gus O’Donnell also thinks we’re nearing the end of the “natural lag” between broadening the talent pipeline’s input, and reaping the rewards in a more diverse output. “We’ve cracked the first problem: that of getting people in,” he says. “Now we need to avoid the drop-off as they come through into the top jobs.”

Before civil servants get too carried away with their achievements on gender equality, Paul Jenkins inserts a warning note about disabled people and ethnic minorities – both almost invisible at departments’ very top levels. “Progress on ethnicity or disability is nowhere near as good,” he says. “I sometimes think the civil service finds it easier to focus on gender, partly because it’s the one they find easiest to solve.” Jeremy Heywood is, though, aware of the danger. “We’re making real progress” on boosting the numbers of female SCS, he said in September. “I’m much more worried about black and minority ethnic representation at senior levels, and the harassment and bullying data that we get from our people survey from disabled people.”

The cabinet secretary may well be preparing to increase the pressure on these other aspects of diversity. But on women, O’Donnell believes, we are probably close to a tipping point. “As you get more women leaders, that helps to reinforce the trend,” he argues. “Women further down raise their aspirations, because they see it’s possible – not just to be a leader, but to be a leader and not to have to pretend to be a man. Nowadays you see women who can be themselves, have time for families, and still get on.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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