A woman’s place: what’s next for gender diversity in the civil service?

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 13 February 2018 in Feature
Feature

As government gears up to celebrate the centenary of voting rights for women, Tamsin Rutter catches up with gender champion Melanie Dawes and women’s network co-founder Keela Shackell-Smith on their priorities for 2018

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a rally in 1909. Credit: PA

Last week the Foreign Office hosted former and current female perm secs, alongside departmental gender champions and women’s network leads, in a celebration of the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage. Current perm secs were invited to bring along a guest of any rank – a future leader, or someone helping to shape the future of their department.

“It’s about getting past, present and future together to celebrate and also to talk about where we want to go next,” civil service gender champion Melanie Dawes tells Civil Service World.

Many former female permanent secretaries developed their careers at a time when you didn’t talk about gender equality. “It wasn’t helpful,” says Dawes. “You just got on and did the job.”

It is interesting therefore, she says, to see them interacting with current and future leaders of an institution that has come a long way since discussing equalities was seen as a sign of weakness.

“The suffrage movement reached the four corners of the country. We want to do the same” –​ Keela Shackell-Smith

Past, present and future is the theme of the civil service’s year-long programme of celebrations, funded as part of the government’s £2.5m Centenary Grant Scheme and being organised by Keela Shackell-Smith, who works two days at the Environment Agency and spends the rest of her working week helping Dawes on gender issues.

Shackell-Smith has orchestrated a suffrage flag relay which will unite and highlight celebrations across the country. Unveiled on 7 February at the Foreign Office, a flag of purple, white and green will travel to government offices across the UK throughout 2018, eventually making it back to London’s Parliament Square in mid-December (see image below). It’s booked to hit Cardiff first, and will stop everywhere from a prison in Belfast to military locations in Scotland, from a Department for Work and Pensions office in Hull to an Environment Agency post at Land’s End.

“I was really amazed at the scale of the suffrage movement, because it reached the four corners of the country, but also how they mobilised so many people,” says Shackell-Smith. “I was really keen that we were going to do the same.”

A parallel relay is taking place abroad, with a flag accompanying Foreign Office and Department for International Development staff on their travels. Its first few stops were South Africa, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Turkey.

Over the year female civil servants will also be invited to write blogs, comparing their careers and aspirations to those of their grandmothers, which Shackell-Smith hopes to pull together into a book of 100 stories to commemorate 2018. Both Shackell-Smith, whose grandmother was a “tea lady”, and Dawes – her’s grew up in a pub in London’s east end – plan to write blogs.

Dawes joined the civil service in 1989, and did stints in the Treasury, HMRC and the Cabinet Office before taking up her post as permanent secretary at the recently renamed Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in 2015. Talking to CSW ahead of the relay launch, she reflects on gender equality progress over the time she’s been in Whitehall.

“Looking back over nearly 30 years, the thing I think was most important was flexible working and support for women, particularly around maternity and them coming back and working while still being able to look after their children,” she says.

“There was a sea change around those issues that started in the mid 1990s, and it has gathered pace and deepened. We’re now seeing a lot more men going on significant periods of parental leave of several months – I think that’s an incredibly good thing.”

But times have changed, and Dawes now thinks gender equality is “increasingly about mobilising and networking”.

Shackell-Smith and her colleague Ellie Binks won the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Award in 2016 (see image below) after launching the Cross-Government Women’s Network, which now has more than 150 network leads based all over the UK and involved in the centenary celebration preparations.

Dawes believes that this network has helped the civil service “get more collective” about how it tackles equality. “In all aspects of diversity you need the championing from the top, but you also need the mobilising and the energy and the voice in the organisation at every level,” she says.

Visiting government offices this year alongside the flag, is the “event-in-a-box”. Shackell-Smith has worked with the Government Equalities Office to pull together resources, such as templates for workshops, that volunteers can use in their own centenary events. The aim, she says, is to spark conversations and “more importantly action”.

Another initiative that is stimulating the right conversations, according to Dawes, is the new law requiring companies with at least 250 staff to reveal their gender pay gaps. Departments published theirs in December, and they ranged from the Department for Transport’s 16.9% to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s 3.3%.

Dawes says the debate around the gap is only just beginning. “Sometimes it’s going to raise equal pay issues, but what it’s often telling you is that you’ve got a structural imbalance in where your women are in your workforce and that actually means that their voices are insufficiently heard,” she says.

But for Dawes as gender champion, the “really big priority” is diversity and inclusion as a whole: she sees gender as the entry point to an agenda which is let down by lower success rates on representation of minority ethnic and disabled staff.

Progress depends on three things: processes, talent management, and culture. Processes need to be “scrubbed down” to remove biases from recruitment, promotion and other HR practices – Dawes again refers to the civil service’s past focus on getting parental leave right. She also lauds its successes in talent management, in particular mentoring, sponsorship and talent schemes for women.

But that third aspect, culture and behaviours, is the “big area on gender equality that we still need to work out”, says Dawes. The Harvey Weinstein scandal and the wider debates it opened up about sexual harassment and gender stereotyping in the workplace have presented the civil service with “an opportunity to really talk ourselves about how far there are still problems that we need to uncover, get on the table, talk about and do something about”, she adds.

"I think these things have reached a tipping point, and I don’t think they’re ever going away again" – Melanie Dawes

The 2017 Civil Service People Survey found that 12% of staff had experienced discrimination at work, and 11% had been bullied or harassed. Some 63% said they felt unable to challenge inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

But the civil service is responding. In January, diversity and inclusion champion Sue Owen, DCMS permanent secretary, announced she was undertaking a review of cross-Whitehall arrangements for tackling harassment and misconduct. Due to present her findings in March, Owen will be looking at the processes for investigating concerns and for supporting the staff who raise them.

And in the spring, the departmental “culture audits” begin – a more qualitative version of the People Survey, which the civil service committed to in its Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. “It allows you to describe a culture rather than rating it,” Dawes explains.

The perm sec is not alone in her view that Whitehall’s progress on diversity stalled during the first half of this decade, but she also thinks it has come back strong. “I’m very confident that our commitment to diversity and inclusion at the top of the civil service is here to stay,” she says. “I think these things have reached a tipping point, and I don’t think they’re ever going away again.”

Women in Whitehall through history

1869   Civil service acquired the postal industry and with it female telegraphists, who became first female civil servants
1873   Jeanie Senior appointed workhouse inspector, first female civil servant outside the Post Office
1914-1919   Number of female civil servants quadrupled to 230,000 during WW2, but fell in subsequent years
1925   Women allowed to be recruited into (more senior) administrative class
1946   Marriage bar, requiring women to resign their posts on getting married, lifted in most departments
1955   Evelyn Sharp appointed first female permanent secretary. Government committed to pay equality in non-industrial civil service
1972   Marriage bar lifted at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
1996   Senior Civil Service created, progress on gender diversity accelerated
2005   10-point plan for a diverse civil service launched
2008   Promoting Equality, Valuing Diversity civil service strategy published
2014   Civil service Talent Action Plan
2017   Diversity and Inclusion Strategy

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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