By Civil Service World

12 Mar 2020

Departments across government have held a series of events to mark International Women’s Day. CSW speaks to civil service gender champion and Department for International Trade permanent secretary Antonia Romeo, and champions in two departments, about the work they are doing to drive equality


Photo from left to right: Antonia Romeo, Beth Russell, and Esther Wallington

Antonia Romeo, civil service gender champion and Department for International Trade permanent secretary

What did the civil service do to mark International Women’s Day?

There was a huge amount going on across the civil service, in all departments, across the world and the UK. Within the Department for International Trade, we held panel events focusing on what ‘Each for Equal’ means to our global team. In the Department for International Development, events focused on ‘What Works’ which looks at violence against women. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office have run events on redefining success. HM Revenue and Customs are running events across their network on their ‘respect at work’ initiative, and the Department for Work and Pensions is undertaking a range of listening activities across the UK.


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Why is it important that the civil service marks the day?

We mark the day to celebrate what we’ve achieved (a lot!) but also to refocus and commit to going further and faster. In the civil service we’re committed to gender equality, and parity at all levels. We want women to fulfil their potential, but not just because they are women. Around 430,000 people work for the UK civil service, and 54% are women. That’s a huge amount of talent and opportunity, but the proportions don’t remain consistent at more senior levels – we’re at just 30% at permanent secretary level. There’s much more to do.

Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary, has said: “The civil service is committed to becoming the most diverse and inclusive organisation in the UK. We have made much progress but there is always more to do. And we must also apply those principles to the public services we deliver, particularly to our most vulnerable citizens. International Women’s Day is a moment to reflect on both the remarkable progress we have made and the challenges that remain.” This is a focus for the whole leadership of the civil service.

How much progress has the government made on gender equality as part of promoting diversity and inclusion in the civil service?

Our track record in pursuing gender equality is strong, and we compare well internationally, and in comparison with the UK private sector. We’re making progress on representation at senior levels. In 2010 just over 35% of senior civil servants were women – in June 2019 it was 45%. There’s still a long way to go. Of course, it’s not just about the numbers, it’s also about the culture, and we need to ensure that we are building an inclusive culture in all departments and functions. To do this we need to listen to the lived experience of civil servants and understand what it feels like to work here, and what needs to change.

2020 is the year that the civil service aims to become the most inclusive employer in the UK. Do you think it has achieved that aim on gender?

2020 is the Civil Service Year of Inclusion, which is an opportunity for us to double down on our commitment to become the most inclusive employer by 2020. From a gender perspective, we were recently recognised as a leading employer for flexible working by Timewise (2020 Flexible Employer), which is great as it’s central to achieving our most inclusive employer objective on gender. We’ve also made progress improving our culture, which is thanks to the dedication and perseverance of large numbers of civil servants dedicated to gender equality, including very active networks across government, our senior champions, and the gender equality leadership group. But recent listening exercises across the civil service tell us we’ve got much more to do.

What more is there to do to achieve parity?

We need to tackle areas where the culture can seem intimidating and non-inclusive - whether this is to women or others. There are pockets of under-representation in senior positions in some functional roles, for example we have 66% female SCS in human resources but 28% in digital, data and technology.

This is not just a women’s agenda – it matters to all of us that we are a genuine meritocracy and have true intellectual diversity, as well as being representative of the population we serve. We need men onside too, so we are all challenging stereotypes, confronting bias, and championing equality.

Are there any specific priorities you are working on for 2020?

One of my first actions as civil service gender champion was to set up the Gender Equality Leadership Group (GELG). This is a group of director general level gender champions from all departments, working together to galvanize top level action in departments. We know that the lived experience of women is different in different departments and functions, and the GELG works to ensure the agenda has the oversight and drive that it needs.

Following last year’s #BalanceForBetter consultation, where we collected views from across the civil service, we identified a number of interventions and policies to focus on, which we’ll be rolling out across all departments soon. One of the things we heard was that the interventions don’t always resonate with those people with multiple protected characteristics. That is why we have launched a series of ‘sprints’ across the civil service. The first sprint is for ethnic minority women and is our opportunity to listen and understand exactly the unique barriers they face, and what more we need to do.

We also want to keep offering flexible working policies to support women and men in the workplace, and we’ll be doing cultural audits on specific areas of the civil service where there are issues.

What is the Department for International Trade specifically doing to promote gender diversity?

When I became permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade three years ago, one of my top priorities was to build a genuinely diverse and inclusive department – of gender and of everything. I don’t believe you can create organisations which are inclusive on only one dimension: organisations are either inclusive for all, or they’re not. So while we’ve been doing lots of work in DIT on gender, including focusing on policies around returners, to ensure that people who take a period of leave, transition back to work easily, we’ve been doing wider work on the whole diversity and inclusion agenda – for example, this year, DIT rose 340 places to number 30 in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers List.

Gender Equality Leadership Group

Beth Russell, director general tax and Welfare HM Treasury

What is your role in helping your department promote gender diversity?

I am champion of the women's network, Women in the Treasury (WITT) which is one of the oldest women's networks in Whitehall. That means I support WITT in their activity which includes regular events with internal and external speakers, networking lunches and work with HR on corporate issues like tackling our gender pay gap, updating our policies on bullying and harassment, and widening recruitment onto our graduate development programme. I represent the views of the network in board discussions and generally try and ensure that the interests of the women in HMT are represented in corporate decision making. I also mentor women in the organisation and believe passionately in supporting more junior female staff to progress and make the most of their talent.  

How does that aim manifest itself in the work of the department?

The Treasury I joined in 2000 was hugely different from now – women were definitely in a minority, especially in key posts and senior positions.  And flexible working was rare. Now 46% of staff in Treasury are women, we have gender parity (50%) in our SCS and, from next week, 4 of our 5 DGs will be women. Alongside that we are also having discussions about aspects of our working practices and culture which might disproportionately (although not only) impact women, to make sure the Treasury is an inclusive place to work for everyone. For example, we recently published a paper on the experiences of Treasury parents and how to combine work and school-age children. This work was grounded in the diverse life experiences of Treasury staff and brought together multiple points of view from across the department, led by the flexible workers network, to focus on making sure parents feel welcomed at work and supported in how they combine work and their personal responsibilities. That intersection of how we celebrate and support the diversity of our staff is where we really need to focus in the period ahead to ensure that we are promoting the benefits of diversity and inclusion across the department’s policymaking responsibilities. 

How does the department help promote the careers of women?

The Treasury has a range of talent programmes which are focused on helping people progress. The women's network also showcases the diverse careers of women – both internally and externally – through their events. For example, a recent speed networking event connected SCS with women across the department for quick and impactful mentoring conversations, and a panel discussion just before Christmas explored the range of opportunities for women working internationally. Over the last few years we have also strongly promoted flexible working – not just for women but across the department.  Many of our staff work flexibly – part-time, compressed hours, term-time working and a growing number of jobshares. 

How does the department monitor progress on its equality action plan?

I chair what we call the Diversity Delivery Committee which brings together the executive team responsible for promoting diversity and inclusion in the Treasury and we regularly monitor progress against the targets set out in our D&I plan. We publish extensive data on our intranet every quarter covering not only our formal targets but detail below that on different aspects of diversity – including gender. This data broken down by group and includes recruitment data as well. We are currently working on our new D&I plan which will set targets and priorities for the period from 2020-24 and as part of that we will be looking at how we continue to make progress on gender equality.

Esther Wallington - Chief People Officer at HMRC

What is your role in helping your department promote gender diversity? 

As gender champion for HMRC, I’m responsible for how we promote gender equality within our department and across the tax profession internationally. I work with a fantastic network of colleagues who are inspiring in their work to promote equality and inclusion; my role is to give them a platform for that work and remove barriers that get in their way. 

How does that aim manifest itself in the work of the department? 

More than half of our workforce are women, and we have made good progress in increasing female representation at senior levels.  We have a majority female executive committee, and our chief executive, Jim Harra, visibly supports our work to create a more gender equal and gender inclusive environment.  We are particularly proud of our work on gender related health, for example menopause awareness, depression and prostate cancer, and improving our understanding of the impact of domestic abuse on customers and colleagues so we can provide support.

How does the department help promote the careers of women? 

We have role models at every level in our department, with women sharing their ambitions, achievements and challenges, including how they overcome them.  Senior women work part-time, term-time and job share, and we are encouraging more part-time and job share working by men.  We know though that in some professions and functions, especially those that are growing such as digital, data and technology professions, we must work harder to generate gender equality and we are using insight to help us pinpoint interventions to create momentum in these areas.

How does the department monitor progress on its equality action plan?

We review progress regularly, including through the lens of protected characteristics, and the executive committee regularly receives data that helps us to monitor trends and patterns in our workforce diversity distribution. Our diversity data is also shared with leadership teams across the department, through data tools that give up to date information. Our gender pay gap analysis is also considered by the executive committee annually, and we are pleased that as a result of increased promotion and recruitment of women at senior levels last year, we have continued to close the gender pay gap.

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