Jane Dudman: Where are the female permanent secretaries?

The dearth of top female leaders shows that Whitehall must not get complacent on gender equality

By Jane Dudman

09 May 2016

I sing in a women’s choir. We always sing on International Women’s Day in March and one of my favourites is a very simple song, an adaptation of an Italian protest song, Bella Ciao, now used worldwide as a hymn of protest and freedom.

One of the lines in our version is: “We are working for liberation, and we will not be denied”. That line has sprung to mind several times over the past few weeks. There is no doubt that many, many people – men and women – are indeed working for women to have their fair share of senior roles in public life, including in the civil service.

But crikey, the work can sometimes feel like an uphill task, both in this country and elsewhere. It is, to say the least, dispiriting, that just two of the 12 members of the Civil Service Board, the organisation's top collective leadership body, are women – Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) permanent secretary Melanie Dawes, who also acts as Whitehall's gender diversity champion, and Culture, Media and Sport's perm sec Sue Owen.

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This follows the departure of HMRC chief executive Lin Homer and Department of Health permanent secretary Una O'Brien, who were, until recently, the only two other women on the board.

Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, has described the lack of diversity at the top of the senior civil service as a “shameful fall”, pointing out that five years ago, the civil service reached a peak of 50/50 gender balance among the permanent secretaries in the 16 top departments. Ironically, the UK has a pretty good record across the whole of the senior civil service. Back in January, I wrote about research showing that Britain has the highest number of female senior public officials in Europe.

But if there’s one lesson we’re learning from public life, not just in the UK, but globally, it is that the price of progress, for politicians and public servants alike, is eternal vigilance.

On 5 May, there were elections around the UK for seats in the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the legislative assembly in Northern Ireland and the London assembly, as well as in 124 local authorities in England. Electors in London, Liverpool, Bristol and Salford were voting for a mayor, while 41 police and crime commissioners in England were also up for election. In all, more than 2,600 democratically-elected positions were available.

But, despite much progress, the country is nowhere near seeing 1,300 of those positions filled by women. Fewer women stood for the PCC positions this time, and figures from the Centre for Women and Democracy show that a mere 15% of council leaders in England are women.

Progress can feel glacial. But it is being made: at the same time as the elections in the UK, more than 400 female parliamentarians from around the world were meeting in Jordan’s parliamentary building at the annual global summit of Women in Parliaments, the Brussels-based group founded by former MEP Silvana Koch-Mehrin, to discuss how to increase the number and influence of women in political and public life.                                                           
Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently exhorted his most senior government officials to show greater leadership on gender equality. In Australia, women outnumber men at the lower levels of public service, but they remain under-represented in the most senior levels, and the prime minister set what he called a "clear goal" of seeing 50% of government board posts filled by women.

"The annoying thing about getting gender parity is just how much time it is still taking up – time that could be spent improving public services"

Turnbull had an interesting take on this, telling his older officials to "swallow their pride" and use reverse mentoring from younger civil servants to get up to speed on technology and to create a more flexible workplace. The UK civil service has many initiatives and strong networking projects in place to support women in achieving their rightful place at the head of the organisation, and some places are doing better than others.

Back on International Women's Day, Leslie Evans, permanent secretary of the Scottish government, wrote that her organisation now achieved overall gender parity among its staff and, at just 0.6%, Scotland has the smaller gender pay gap in the UK for top public sector jobs. "We’re working to ensure greater balance across all grades, with targeted development and support for women with potential to progress to SCS level," she wrote. And, of course, three of the main party leaders in Scotland are women, including first minister Nicola Sturgeon, while two of the party leaders in Wales are also women, including Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru.

The really annoying thing about getting gender parity is just how much time it is still taking up – time that could be more usefully spent on improving public services themselves. Lindy West, a forthright Seattle-based writer commenting on the US presidential race, summed it up nicely: “How many think pieces do we need before society accepts that sexism is real and we can move on to the far more important work of repairing the damage it has caused?” she asked. “What a tremendous, tedious, pointless drain on our time and energy. Imagine what we could accomplish if we were just allowed to do our jobs.”


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