By Suzannah.Brecknell

15 Mar 2013

While the overall story of women in the civil service is a positive one, the number of female permanent secretaries has fallen dramatically in the last two years. Should we be concerned? Suzannah Brecknell investigates.

Compare and contrast: The faces of permanent secretaries in 2011, and 2013

It was all going so well. When Bronwyn Hill was appointed permanent secretary at the environment department in March 2011, she took the proportion of female perm secs in Whitehall’s 16 main home departments to 50 per cent. She had “smashed Whitehall’s glass ceiling”, exclaimed The Guardian, while the then-cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell proclaimed that her appointment confirmed that the civil service “is now a truly meritocratic organisation”.

What does it say about the civil service, then, that the number of female perm secs in those top 16 departments has halved since then? Across the whole permanent secretary grade, the wider picture is even worse: just 16.7 per cent are women.

Should we be concerned about this? Or about the fact that in March 2012 – according to ONS figures – women made up 53 per cent of the civil service, but only 34 per cent of senior civil servants (SCS) and 31 per cent of Top Management Posts (TMPs: director-general grade or above)? In March 2011, statistics compiled for the Civil Service Board show, just 28 per cent of directors-general were women. Based on the pace of recent progress, it seems unlikely that the civil service will meet its diversity targets: set in 2008, these stipulated that 39 per cent of SCS and 34 per cent of TMPs should be women by this year.

Glass half full
Despite these figures, the overall story of women in the civil service – and the SCS – is a positive one: numbers in the SCS have grown consistently in the last decade. This growth has been due, in part, to a multitude of formal schemes and initiatives designed to remove discrimination from recruitment and promotion; to identify and support talented women; and to provide the flexible working arrangements which allow women to combine work with caring responsibilities.

Una O’Brien, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, stresses that the civil service is a good employer for women: it has stringent equal opportunities policies, family-friendly working arrangements, and a “fantastic training and development offer”. Asked to comment on the recent fall in the number of female perm secs, she tells CSW: “We’re all concerned about it”, but “every part of society is struggling with [getting women into senior posts] at the moment.” O’Brien points to a report in the Financial Times last month which described similar challenges in the private sector.

Indeed, compared to other parts of society, the civil service is a bastion of gender equality. In 2012, when almost a third of civil service TMPs were held by women, just 17 per cent of cabinet members, 16 per cent of FTSE 100 directors and five per cent of national newspaper editors were women – according to the 2012 Sex and Power index, produced by pressure group alliance Counting Women In Coalition.

Internationally, too, the UK is doing well: our civil service came third in an index, published late last year by CSW in association with consultancy Ernst & Young, which ranked nations on the proportion of women among their senior officials. According to these figures, 35 per cent of public sector leaders in the UK are female, making the UK the highest-performing European country in the index: Italy was the next, with 27 per cent, followed by France and Germany on 21 and 14.5 per cent respectively.

Understanding the pattern
First civil service commissioner David Normington is charged with ensuring that appointments to top civil service posts are fair and made on merit. Asked about the declining number of female perm secs, he cautions that one mustn’t read too much into “what are quite small numbers, where a few individuals’ personal circumstances can have a disproportionate impact”. Nonetheless, he adds: “I think it is disappointing that we have gone back from the level that we reached a couple of years ago, and that all the recent appointees at that level have been male. Given the small numbers, it is possible that this is a temporary phenomenon; but we can’t be confident in that, and it is not a pattern that I would like to see continuing.”

In part, the lack of a fresh intake of female perm secs reflects the fact that women struggle to make it to the director-general grade from which many departmental chiefs are recruited. While in 2011 women were over-represented among those being promoted into the SCS, the group taking the next crucial step from deputy director to director level was skewed towards men.

This pattern has raised concerns on the civil service’s Senior Leadership Committee (SLC), which supports the Civil Service Board and has a specific remit to consider leadership capacity in the service. The SLC has commissioned qualitative research – being led by Treasury solicitor and perm sec diversity champion Paul Jenkins – to identify the issues that female SCS believe are helping or hindering them in their attempts to reach the very top posts. The research consists of a series of focus groups – around 25, all told – being held across the civil service, and a report with recommendations is expected in the spring.

Sarah Healey, director of strategy for private pensions in the Department for Work and Pensions, is one of the women co-ordinating this work. She says that the issues which have emerged from focus groups so far can broadly be grouped into two themes: those relating to caring responsibilities; and those relating more directly to gender.

Gender issues
There are a number of common ways in which – broadly speaking – women may find it harder to progress in any field simply because they are women. Based on the feedback Healey has received from focus groups so far, she notes that “very ruthless networking is not something that women are necessarily as good at”, for example, and that women may lack confidence to push themselves forwards for promotion. At one focus group attended by CSW, a participant said that while this isn’t an innate female trait, women are “socially incentivised to self-deprecate: you make friends as a woman by and large by showing your vulnerability”.

This lack of confidence and aversion to networking can have a particular impact, says Healey, because some promotion processes, “especially in quite small departments, can be seen to be about favouritism, and it can be seen to be about those networks rather than necessarily about ability to do the job”. At some focus groups, she says, there have been discussions about whether more formal promotion processes – for example, promotion boards which appoint to a grade rather than applications for a specific role – are more beneficial for women as they help to remove this favouritism.

Normington, whose job it is to oversee all promotions into top posts, says the commission has no de facto preference between formal promotion boards or applying for individual posts – though he notes that it is harder to appoint to a grade, rather than specific jobs, at the very top levels. He suggests that the key issue “if we are serious about selecting the best candidates for each post” is to have a very clearly-defined set of criteria for the jobholder. “The clearer the criteria for a post, the easier it is for the panel to assess candidates objectively and to ensure that the process is fair,” he says.

Caring issues
The second group of issues arises from the fact that women still shoulder most responsibility for childcare and other caring responsibilities in their family. Timing plays an important role here. One focus group participant said she was repeatedly encouraged to apply for a Grade 5 post for which she would be the only applicant, but hesitated for some time because she was about to start trying to conceive her first child and worried that it wasn’t the right time to step into the SCS. Because the age at which many professional women have their first child – typically late 20s to early 30s – coincides with a time in their careers when they’re moving into management roles, many women find that promotion into the SCS is followed closely by a number of years where they take maternity leave or work flexibly or part-time.

As with gender equality overall, the civil service’s record is generally positive on flexible working. Healey notes that in focus groups “people who were dealing with these issues 15 years ago or more feel as though the current circumstances are incredibly warm and welcoming to those kinds of arrangements, in a way that they weren’t in the past”. However, while more women may be taking advantage of flexible working arrangements to accommodate caring responsibilities, this may be having an impact on their promotion prospects and progress up to senior levels.

In the focus group CSW attended, one woman who had spent around a decade working part-time summed up the general feeling, saying: “I don’t think that experience has put me in a very good position now to progress to director.” The lack of time for personal development, networking or self-promotion means that part-time work “doesn’t particularly equip me for promotion,” she said.

Enabling women to progress into challenging, senior roles even if they chose to work in a non-standard working pattern is crucial to building the numbers of women in top posts, says O’Brien. “It’s very hard – almost impossible – to be a DG or a perm sec if you haven’t done some really hard jobs along the way,” she says, and the decade after joining the SCS is a crucial time. “Employers have to have working opportunities like job shares and properly structured part-time jobs that enable women and other people who’ve got caring responsibilities to still do difficult jobs and not side-step out for eight or ten years.”

Healey notes that women may also struggle to get into senior posts if they do have a strong portfolio of work, but one built several years previously. Focus group participants noted a feeling, she says, that “the ‘bright young thing’ is much more attractive than the person who actually has done all of those things, but maybe the last time they did them was five or six years ago because in the intervening time they’ve had three periods off,” she says.

Supporting individuals with caring responsibilities to progress will, therefore, involve two broad changes. First, continuing to promote flexible working arrangements, and structuring jobs so that people can take on challenging roles in part-time or flexible arrangements. This may be achieved by HR and staff management policies – for example, by providing the funds to pay for a six-day week in some roles, allowing the job to be split between two job-sharing staff with a one-day hand-over period. “If you force the hand-over down into a few hours or half a day, I don’t think it will work,” says O’Brien.

One board-level woman in a policy-focused department tells CSW that the attitude of individual line managers to flexible working is also important. Recalling the roles she’s worked in which seemed easier to perform flexibly, she says: “It’s not been the job or the nature of the hours [that have made a difference]: it’s been really dependent on the person I was working for.”

The second change required is to develop good career management structures which mean, as Normington has it, that “people – still predominantly women – do not drop off the ‘talent radar’ if they go on maternity leave, take a career break or work part-time for a period, or if their progression slows down temporarily in order to facilitate caring responsibilities”.

Tapping into talent
It does seem that the civil service is doing well in terms of talent management, and that internal promotions to board level are rising. “There was a phase three or four years ago where there were more external imports of senior women,” says the female board member. “My sense is that [now] there are more women who are doing better from within.” She attributes the change to the fact that there has been more “decent talent management”.

Partly this is the fruit of many years of work in this area, she says, but shrinking budgets and headcounts have also forced departments to get serious about managing their internal talent. She points to the Treasury as an example. In the past, it had “a labour market model which has basically relied on quite young people coming in for three to four years and then moving on,” she says. This model, and the resultant high turnover rate, was “just about sustainable” when the organisation was growing. But “in an organisation which is shrinking, you’re basically leaching talent and retention is much harder”. So there has been a much greater focus on retaining “really good people, even if they don’t fit into a ‘five-day-a-week, tall, skinny, male, Baliol, Oxford, PPE first’ box,” she says, providing a concise profile of the Treasury permanent secretary.

O’Brien also believes that talent management and developing a strong pipeline of candidates for top posts are key to overcoming the recent dip at perm sec level. “We have to remain calm,” she says, “We have to go deep into the organisation, into grade 6/7, SCS1, and really take a longer-term view to build a bigger pool of potential candidates for the future.”

Beware assumptions of progress
The female board member is more cautious, though, expressing doubts that a stronger pipeline of SCS women will automatically translate into perm sec jobs. “It takes work and it takes management and leadership attention” to improve gender diversity, she says: it will require further active decision-making to turn the pipeline into appointments of women at very top levels. Currently, she says, gender diversity is not “recognised as a sufficient priority at the very top of the civil service” because “there is a feeling that these things will work themselves out”. But they won’t do so unaided, she argues: appointment boards must be pushed to pick women for perm sec roles.

Jonathan Rees, former head of the Government Equalities Office and now a trustee of the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, also raises concerns about a lack of focus on diversity issues at the top of the civil service. Successive cabinet secretaries have made it clear that diversity is a priority, he says, but it’s equally important to measure what is happening. “The target culture is quite important,” he says, “and therefore the absence of targets, or the lack of updating of targets, is equally important.” His understanding is that the current set of diversity targets are due to be refreshed after the Cabinet Office has published the civil service capability review this spring; observers may find it worthwhile noting how long it takes to set the new targets after the capability review is published.

Those targets, of course, won’t just cover gender, but also race and disability. The civil service has made progress on these areas, but the dip in the numbers of female perm secs shows that we can’t assume progress on diversity will continue by some natural force of momentum. And when it comes to addressing issues of race or disability in the SCS, there is both less momentum than on gender (progress has been much slower) and greater challenges. If disabled or black and minority ethnic (BME) people aren’t properly represented at a senior level, the gap can’t be blamed on their greater caring responsibilities. Supporting these groups means facing head-on questions of discrimination – whether conscious or not – and deep societal problems such as access to education.

Take a look at the faces at the top of this page. Una O’Brien believes that senior leaders must be “very, very clear that in any senior grouping, a diverse group will always give you a better overall outcome than a group of people who are very like each other”. So we should be concerned, then, that the group on the right contains half as many women. But we should perhaps be still more concerned that it contains not one person from a BME background – another backwards step compared to the 2011 group – and just five people who didn’t go to Oxbridge. What’s more, neither group contains anyone with a visible disability. Tackling those absences will be just as important, and perhaps more complex, than bringing women back to the top table of the civil service.

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