Editorial: CSW too white? Don't shoot the messenger

CSW magazine is full of white men. But don't shoot the messenger: we're depicting the reality of Whitehall's top leadership.

By Matt Ross

19 Aug 2014

By definition, it’s the problems you hadn’t anticipated that wreak the most havoc. In planning CSW’s relaunch as a monthly magazine, we had averted many dangers – but I was caught quite unawares by two mid-ranking humdingers. First, it emerged the night before publication that one of our cover stars, Sir Bob Kerslake, is to step down from the civil service. And second, people began commenting on the lack of women and ethnic minorities amongst the civil servants in our first issue. 

The first can only be put down to the inconvenient vagaries of politics; but the second is an important and valid charge. People pointed out that the civil service is 10% BME and majority female; even the SCS is one-third women. Yet our cover named only one woman amongst the 15 key contributors listed, and our representation of ethnic minorities can only be called pitiful. Sadly, our critics won’t find much solace in this issue: though there are more women and minorities in the features and briefing pages, all four columnists and all five big interviewees are white men.

So what happened? I can confidently rule out prejudice within our editorial team. My mum’s a Quaker; my dad is Jewish (note to conspiracy theorists: I’m still awaiting the call from the Global Zionist Media Conspiracy); my wife’s parents came to London from Antigua and Jamaica, and our three kids are (very) mixed-race. The deputy editor’s family hail from Ghana; the senior reporter is a working mum; and the reporter is a German with a Nigerian father: all three are women, as are both our sales directors. The team, in short, looks rather like London – and perhaps its brilliance owes something to the different approaches that come with that diversity. 

Instead, the explanation lies in the nature of our publishing operation. Whilst our website caters for all civil servants, the print title is aimed primarily at senior grades. And most of its interviewees are perm secs, chief execs and directors general – both because our readers want to hear from them, and because they’re the ones most able to speak openly on a range of topics. At these heights, the civil service is much whiter and more male than the SCS average. 

Since I became editor, CSW has taken a keen interest in diversity and equality matters, both in the civil service workforce and in policymaking and service delivery. We’ve even cast our net more widely in a deliberate attempt to find more female interviewees. In the first six months of this year, we published 19 big interviews, of which seven were with women – a greater proportion than their representation in the SCS. Of those seven, only two were perm secs or chief execs; but of the 12 men, two thirds held those jobs.

For an editor, skewing coverage in this way raises difficult questions. We could start counting women and minorities as we plan articles, ensuring that we portray a diverse SCS; and this might encourage people facing prejudice or institutional obstacles to persist in their efforts to climb the greasy ladder, ultimately helping to foster a more diverse leadership. But by doing so, we’d be painting a false picture of the civil service’s upper echelons – and perhaps reducing the pressure to improve matters. As journalists, we have a duty to represent the civil service’s top brass as it is, in all its faults as well as its glories.

Another way to address the diversity gap would be to launch supplements, sections or columns on equalities issues. But equality of opportunity should be a mainstream topic: we’d rather put the questions, alongside those on civil service core functions, within our highest-profile articles – as we did in last month’s lead interview, and in this month’s with Sir David Normington.

In planning the monthly magazine, we’ve always recognised the need to give women and minorities fair representation. Many of our major interviewees will be women, whilst our new minifeatures will enable us to fish in the more diverse pool below the very top jobs. But do please get in touch with any ideas you have for female contributors or interviewees – particularly women who could write expertly and frankly on leadership and management in the civil service.

So we hear what you’re saying, and we’ll continue to ensure we’re accurately portraying the cohorts from which we draw our interviewees and contributors. We’d like CSW to look more diverse. But we certainly won’t be counting women and ethnic minorities at the planning stage, or flattering the demographic profile of a leadership that remains dominated by white, Protestant, middle- and upperclass men. Ultimately, the only way for a magazine about civil service leaders and managers to paint a more eclectic picture of government’s top officials is for that group to become more representative of the population it serves. Civil servants may not like what they see when we reflect back an image of their own top brass, but the answer is not to condemn the
mirror; it is to change the reality that it depicts.

Matt Ross is editor of Civil Service World.

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