‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’: making noise about achieving gender parity in public services

By on 29/01/2024 | Updated on 29/01/2024
Image from Pixabay

Women tend to have less influence in decision-making in government – even in civil and public services that have equal representation of men and women in senior roles. During a Global Government Women’s Network webinar, leaders from Canada, South Africa and the UK spoke about how to change the status quo

Many countries are a long way from reaching gender parity in leadership positions in their national civil services and even in those that have achieved it, or are close to it, it can be rare to find women in the most important and influential roles and departments.

In this webinar, panellists delved into why this is, sharing the stories under the surface, touching on women’s leadership qualities, the pros and cons of diversity targets, and male allyship.

Mehnaz Tabassum, IT project manager, corporate services sector at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat – who was also on the panel of the inaugural Global Government Women’s Network session at AccelerateGov in Ottawa last October – recounted her experiences as a woman and an immigrant in the Canadian Public Service.

Mehnaz Tabassum

Having moved from Bangladesh to Canada at the age of 17, she began her career in the private sector before joining the public service. She recalled vividly her first mentor – a senior executive and immigrant himself – advising her to return to the private sector because “as a visible minority woman in the public sector, the odds are against you [in terms of career progression]… get out while you’re young”.

When Tabassum landed her first leadership role – she was the youngest woman in her department to do so – that same mentor told her he was glad she hadn’t listened to him.

She may have beaten the odds but that didn’t mean she hadn’t faced challenges, not least feeling intimidated as one of few women and the only person “who looked like me” in meetings with other decision-makers.

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She also said she feels – like so many women in leadership roles do – that she has had to go the extra mile to prove herself to her male peers, despite them having similar skills and experience. “It seemed like a lot of it was ingrained in the culture and in the system… it’s why we aren’t there yet.”

Sharing advice for aspiring leaders, Tabassum said building a strong network of mentors is one of the best ways to set yourself up to become a leader and to have the tools to be an effective one once you get there, adding that it’s important to be “intentional” about who you work for and the professional environment you go into.

“I make sure I’m working for the right leader because they’re not just my boss, they can become my advocate and my ally,” she explained.

Another piece of advice is not to compromise your work-life balance. Tabassum had been to an event where public sector women shared their stories of having to making sacrifices in order to take on the highest roles. “It struck me and I was heartbroken because as an ambitious woman myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to give up my non-profit work, my public speaking commitments, or my family life.

“I keep noticing that while the numbers might tell you that gender equality exists, as a woman you are always expected to feed the system. You’re always told that, in order to get to a certain level, you have to behave a certain way if you want people to take you seriously. So often, what happens is – and I’ve seen this in myself – you put your guard up and you begin to lose sight of your authentic self.”

Reflecting on one of the themes to have come out of the Global Government Women’s Network launch event in October, she reiterated that women shouldn’t let anyone “dim their light”.

“Speak up respectfully but always speak up and share what’s truth. My personal journey has been full of struggles and it did make me a stronger human but I don’t think it should be this tough for everyone.  

“The more we work together and have platforms and networks like this, and we support each other, I think eventually, we are going to get there… we’ll actually see a true difference in the culture.”

Unrecognised leadership qualities, and pressure to fit the mould

Tabassum’s earlier point about women’s sacrifice resonated with fellow panellist Alice Lundsten, head of demand and capacity programme at NHS England.

“I think there is an expectation that women are going to be slightly more amenable, or slightly more flexible. Honestly, there’s a kind of undercurrent that women are expected to sacrifice just a little bit more [than men],” she said.

Contemplating her own career, Lundsten said she had been lucky that she has been heard, well received and generally considered to be competent, yet for a significant chunk of her early career, she was seen as being “just the admin”.

“Being able to multitask and to keep track of lots of priorities, and understand how things fit together, instead of those being seen as leadership qualities or strategic insight… I was typecast as being a very high performing admin,” she said.

Alice Lundsten

Though she made clear she has nothing against administrators – “they are the glue that makes everything work” – she got to a point where she was keen to stretch herself further but every time she made that known, the response was “’Oh, well, maybe you could become an executive PA’. And I was thinking ‘well, yes probably I could. But it might be nice to aim for a job where I could have an executive PA’.”  

There is, she said, a particular form of leadership which is considered “gold standard” – often based, in western countries, on the leadership style of white middle-class men and their characteristics and behaviours.

“I think a lot of women have been encouraged – if you want to succeed and be taken seriously – to model yourself as closely as possible on the communication style and approaches that those leaders have.

“[But] I don’t want to be a mock-up of a man. I want to be a woman who’s bringing my experiences and my knowledge and my skills and attributes to leadership. I feel really strongly that it should be a female form of leadership. There are a lot of women who have felt like they had to morph their personalities in some way to fit that mould.”

Male-dominated debate has been he norm, she said, though she sees this beginning to shift. And such a shift is particularly important in policy areas such as health because “there’s really good evidence that the diversity, or lack thereof, at decision-making level impacts health inequalities”.

Read more: What’s holding women back? Crises of confidence in the workplace=

Believing in your own madness, and the importance of male allies

Panellist Zukiswa Mqolomba, deputy chairperson of the Public Service Commission of South Africa – who GGF interviewed as part of the 2022 Women Leaders Index – began her opening comments with an anecdote.

The day of the webinar she’d had the opportunity to lead a meeting with one of the ministers of social development. Usually, she’d be accompanied by the chairperson of the Public Service Commission – who is a man – but for the first time he wasn’t able to attend.

“I am the commissioner responsible for social development, yet in my head, I was saying to myself ‘Why am I feeling like a lightweight?’… I think that there are limitations that we impose on ourselves as women.

“We need to overcome those personal internal limitations and make sure that we occupy our seats at the table and lead.”  

She highlighted that women continue to face gender bias and stereotypes in the workplace that suggest they are less capable, or less qualified, than their male counterparts.

She has challenged this perception by working hard to excel in each professional role she’s performed, by seeking mentorship and coaching, by building supportive networks of colleagues who have helped her to break down barriers, and by “believing in my own madness and advocating for myself”.

Read more: Don’t dim your light: leaders share their advice for fellow public service women

Yet, though she has managed to break through into the upper echelons of the public service, that that doesn’t necessarily mean she and other women have an equal voice in the boardroom to men, are taken as seriously or enjoy equal influence in decision-making.

Changing this is of vital importance because, as Mqolomba explained, there is “value in having diverse perspectives and diverse voices in the workplace, in as far as achieving the mandate and the mission of our organisations”.

She finished her opening comments with a plea to male colleagues to become allies in pushing for gender representation and gender parity. “It accrues beneficial results and rewards not just for themselves, because they remove the burden of toxic masculinity from their lives, but for the organisation more holistically,” she said.

A promotion push, and the merits – or otherwise – of diversity targets

Next came the portion of the webinar in which panellists answered questions from the webinar’s live audience.

One of the questions centred on promotion of women to higher roles. In Lundsten’s opinion, there are micro and macro factors at play. One is addressing women’s tendency to underestimate their capabilities. Research has shown, for example, that men might apply for a job if they think they have 50% of the required skills, whereas women won’t apply unless they believe they have at least 80%.

Here, at the micro level, a colleague or manager simply telling an individual, “You’d be good at that job, you should apply” can make a difference.  

At the macro level, she said “robust flexible working policies” such as those recently introduced by NHS England, enables women who might have caring responsibilities at home to balance a more demanding role with their personal lives.

Webinar host Siobhan Benita, herself a former UK senior civil servant, voiced the caveat that flexible working could disadvantage women: if they need to work from home more often and are therefore less present in the workplace than male colleagues, might they be less likely to be considered for promotion?

Lundsten agreed this could be a risk, though argued that the scope of NHS England’s approach means women are better protected from such an impact. Its flexible working policy isn’t just about offering employees the option to work from home part-time, she explained, but covered a much wider set of working adjustments including the option to work shorter hours during school holidays than during term time. This means staff don’t have to make “a binary choice of supporting your family or coming to work” and, she said, is helping to find “that middle ground for both men and women… there are a lot of men who want to be more involved in their children’s lives but haven’t really been given permission to do that”.

The conversation moved on to diversity targets with one member of the audience describing them as a “double edged sword”: if a woman gets the job, there might be a perception she did so to fill a quota, and not because they’re the best person for the job.

Zukiswa Mqolomba

In Mqolomba’s opinion, targets and quotas “are definitely a good thing” in terms of ensuring representation of women and minority groups in the boardroom. In countries such as South Africa, in which she says patriarchy remains heavily embedded in society, far fewer women would reach senior leadership positions if it wasn’t for such mechanisms. But, she said, it isn’t about choosing a less capable woman over a more capable man, it’s about opting for the woman in the name of representation in a situation where a male and female candidate are equally qualified and suitable.

Lundsten suggested flipping the script. While there might be questions over women and those from minority groups having landed certain roles, no-one questions why a white middle-aged man has been appointed alongside other white middle-aged male peers.  

“Where there is that uniformity and a lack of diversity, that’s what we need to be questioning,” she said, because “that’s not how the world looks” and it’s “a bit weird”.

Unconscious bias means that “uniform” boardrooms will continue to be a problem unless there are quotas. The aim is for diversity to happen naturally through hiring “but we’re not there yet”, she said.

Read more: Azerbaijan adds women to COP committee after backlash

Raising another topic, one woman watching the webinar asked how you could make your voice heard in a male-dominated space and ensure you don’t fade into the background.

Lundsten recommended watching the American psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language, and to “do a power pose in the toilet before you go into a meeting where you think you might be a bit nervous”.

“It sounds ridiculous. There’s good science behind it, though. Give it a go. Practice what you’re going to say, take those moments when you can speak and if people talk over you, just interrupt them and say ‘I’m sorry, I think you thought I’d finished but I haven’t’.”

Tabassum’s advice is, whenever you start a new role or a new project, to arrange one-to-ones over coffee with colleagues and bosses and to try and build a bit of a connection. That way, when you enter a meeting, you’ll have people you’ve got to know at a more personal level helping you to feel more confident and at ease.

Diversity equals ‘more profit, better staff retention, higher quality products’

One question that came in was about how to get leaders and organisations to look at and address cultural problems and at the obstacles women face rather than focusing solely on addressing ratios.

The panellists’ advice was to make the case that it makes business sense to create truly diverse and inclusive organisations. “Companies that have diverse boards have more profit, they have better staff retention, they have higher quality products, everything goes up when you have more diversity,” said Lundsten, who added that it would be helpful to build a small network of people who were passionate about the cause and who could find the necessary data to put to leaders and make a case for change.  

A man watching the webinar asked what he and male colleagues could do to improve conditions for women and to help provide a united front to promote diversity.

Lundsten said much of it came down to speaking up for colleagues, whether it be telling them they’re doing a great job and encouraging them to take the next step in their careers, or intervening – in as polite a way as possible – in instances where they notice is female colleague is being spoken over by a man. “You’ve got to call out the bad behaviours,” she said, “even the little ones”.

Mqolomba added that men sacrificing an opportunity to enable a woman they think would do a better job to take it would be helpful.

Demonstrating both the quality of the discussion and the engagement of the audience, at the end of the webinar, a man in the audience messaged panellists to say he loved their conviction, and to remember the saying ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’.

There is no doubt that the three women on the panel are doing all they can to make a noise in the name of gender parity – their hope is that they can recruit others to the cause.   

Watch the full ‘More than just a numbers game: how – and why – to achieve gender parity in public services’ webinar on our dedicated events page and learn more about finding mentors and coaches, promoting wider diversity, and how women can raise other women as they rise. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum as part of the Global Government Women’s Network, was held on 14 December 2023.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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