Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: UK

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 01/02/2018
The Women leaders Index examines gender equality in the United Kingdom's senior civil service

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

It was Lord O’Donnell’s dream that by 2020, the work he had led on improving the representation of women within the UK’s senior civil service would deliver parity.

By the time the five-year diversity strategy that he put in place as Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service lapsed in 2013, women comprised 35% of all senior civil servants – still some way short of that year’s 39% target.

But the groundwork that was laid by O’Donnell and his team during those years ensured that the numbers continued to rise – even when the diversity agenda was held hostage to wider civil service reform demanded by ministers in the coalition government, and whilst the proportions of ethnic minorities and disabled people amongst senior civil servants failed to progress.

For the last four years, the proportion of women in the top five ranks of the UK’s senior civil service has been increasing by at least 1% point each year. While it’s not yet managed to edge above the average of its top-six G20 group, it has stayed in fourth place on the leaderboard and the positive trend looks sure to continue.

Women form a majority of the UK’s public sector workforce, but around 40% of senior civil servants and 35% of the civil service’s most high-ranking leaders. But the proportion of women in leadership roles is growing – and doing so faster among the very top jobs than the wider senior civil service.

Lord O’Donnell is happy with the figures. “By my back-of-an-envelope calculations, if progress continues at the same rate, we will get where I wanted to be by 2020 or two or three years after that, so I regard that as very strong progress and very pleasing.”

As well as setting targets, under Lord O’Donnell the UK civil service rolled out flexible working policies, made it easier for people to work part-time or job-share; and, he says, the civil service “made sure that as an employer we were happy with people taking time off for childcare duties”.

The organisation also did some work around encouraging women to apply for jobs, after analysis of applications showed that male applicants often outnumbered females.

“We found that this classic thing you hear about was actually happening,” says O’Donnell. “Women were looking at jobs, and if they didn’t have all five competencies that the job required then they didn’t apply. Whereas men would be happy to put themselves forward if they had two of them.

“This might be a confidence issue, or a kind of style issue”.

Sir Paul Jenkins was diversity champion in the UK civil service from 2011 to 2014, and has his own theory about that. Women are more thoughtful than men about what they want to achieve in their careers, he believes, and don’t necessarily want to make it to the top at any cost.

“If they’ve had caring responsibilities they’ve usually had to work unbelievably hard to get the balance right, so they think much more carefully about what they really want from their next job.  Men will just think: ‘I want to get to the top’. Then they get to the top and realise that actually it’s a pretty horrible job, but they got there and that’s what matters.

“Women are more used to thinking carefully before they make the next leap, rather than grinding inexorably upward.”

Melanie Dawes is permanent secretary at the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government and the current UK civil service gender champion.  She also chairs the Civil Service People Board, which oversees the implementation of workforce strategies across Whitehall. Dawes has been in the UK civil service for 28 years, and says she has sensed a quantum shift in gender equality over that period.

“In the ‘90s it was incredibly unusual to see women in the senior civil service; in fact, it was quite unusual to see people working part-time.”

That’s changed dramatically. Dawes has even more recent intelligence than our data, showing that the proportion of women is now up to 41.6% – including a third of permanent secretaries.

It’s clear this is an agenda that the UK service takes seriously; and its leaders work hard to create the right culture so that diversity, in all its forms, can flourish. Diversity and inclusion objectives form part of appraisals for permanent secretaries; there is no central target set, but each department has its own goals. “Some departments are coming from a really difficult starting point, so we have to recognise that,” says Dawes. But each permanent secretary does have to account for the work they’ve undertaken and the progress they’ve made.

Dawes advises that “the secret to getting this stuff right is to get quite detailed and granular about what your particular issues are; my personal view is that high-level targets can actually work against that.

“We’ve looked at a whole range of processes to try and get under the skin of things that are causing people to be turned off or not to succeed. That goes to language in job applications, and the processes you use for selection – for instance, we’ve been increasingly using staff panels for senior posts; you get real insight there. Training meeting chairs to ensure that all voices are heard; discipline around how decisions are made; unconscious bias training; active networks – all can help.”

There is an organisation-wide staff survey every October, which includes several questions around diversity and inclusion such as ‘I feel like you can be yourself around here’ and ‘I feel this is a good place for diversity and inclusion’. The Civil Service People Board is currently overseeing the development of a new diversity and inclusion strategy that will run for the next three to four years, involving a major consultation exercise across the service over the summer. There are also ongoing projects to research other HR factors, such as social mobility; one such survey recently revealed that around half of all senior civil servants were children of parents who did not have university degrees.

Even the UK’s much-vaunted Behavioural Insights Team, the so-called ‘Nudge Unit’, is playing a part in shaping the talent pipeline.  One of the first products out of its BI Ventures arm is an online platform called Applied, which is described as a “recruitment platform that helps organisations to remove behavioural biases from their hiring decisions”.

Already in use by the UK and Australian governments amongst other employers, Applied was built to help HR functions “keep up with the latest behavioural research on how to hire the best people” without having to read all the studies themselves. For instance, Applied removes names and other background markers such as schools and universities from applications.

Dawes is proud of the UK’s record on gender – especially when compared with the other large, developed democracies with long-established political systems, such as France, Germany and Italy. And she admits that bigger challenges than gender now confront the UK service – ethnic diversity in particular – but she is far from complacent.

“Until you’ve got gender parity right up to the top of the system, you haven’t got enough role models that really show women at all levels that this is a place that’s truly gender-blind. Yes, our proportion of women permanent secretaries has risen rapidly recently, but it was just 20% only about a year ago.”

Whilst the UK’s progress is slightly less rapid than the G20 mean, its 5.1 point increase over three years is a shade over the average improvement among the top six G20 performers. And the latest data shows a 1.5 point increase in 2016-2017.

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is, she adds, “putting massive effort into this, and we are making good progress – but we have still got further to go at the top, and these things can slip away from you if you don’t keep up consistent pressure. It’s still the case that some departments, like the Treasury and Cabinet Office – which are after all the centres of power – are not nearly as gender-balanced as others. So we’ve still got work to do there.”


Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, and Turkey.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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