By Suzannah Brecknell

21 Aug 2014

But the perm sec diversity champion has a sceptical audience.

Standing in front of a room filled almost exclusively with women, recently-appointed permanent secretary diversity champion and Foreign Office perm sec Simon Fraser (pictured) quipped that he was getting a taste of what it must be like for the female staff in his own department. 

The Institute for Government event  focused on women in the senior civil service – an area which, Fraser said, has had more attention than other parts of the diversity agenda. So he was able to highlight slowly rising representation; existing schemes to support women; and recently completed external research, which looked at barriers to women moving up in the civil service. 

Though Fraser painted a picture of slow but steady progress, panellist Siobhan Benita, a former senior civil servant and now head of policy at Warwick University, gave a more challenging view. The “exodus” of female permanent secretaries in 2011 “sent very negative signals” to women lower down the service, she said; signals which ministers have yet to counter. She also noted that “since this government came in there has been no strategy on diversity across the civil service, [which] sends a really negative signal that the civil service, and ministers, no longer care about diversity.”

Fraser had already touched upon this long-awaited strategy, saying he hopes “we’ll be in a position to publish over the summer” and that it will link closely with the civil service Capability Plan. The strategy may also contain, or link to, the recommendations being formulated on the back of that external research – which, Fraser indicated, focus on leadership, good line management, changing behaviours and cultures, and improving transparency about data and progress. 

In the audience was Sarah Healey, a director general at the culture department, who is leading work to gather data on gender representation across the senior civil service. One finding from this work, she noted, is that much of the disparity between men and women in top grades is driven by external recruitment, which tends to bring in many more men than women. This might be driven by the fact that external recruitment is usually for professions that are male-dominated, she said, but she also wondered whether “when we do that recruitment [we] ensure that we have balance of people coming in externally as well as promoting internally”.

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