Not just a numbers game: Diversity depends on Whitehall cracking its culture

Challenging gender discrimination must be part of a wider drive to build a culture that supports all types of diversity


By Dr Catherine Haddon

16 Feb 2018

The past year has brought the issue of gender diversity and discrimination front and centre. From Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo campaign, through the gender pay gap at the BBC, resignations in British politics, to the Golden Globes, when many celebrities wore black in support of the #timesup movement to tackle sexual abuse. Workplaces too are discussing lots of issues to do with sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

It’s positive that we’re now discussing these issues more openly, but it’s crucial that we also look at some of the deeper issues that underpin them. The issues that women have faced also affect many others – whether you are talking disability, sexuality, ethnicity, or socio-economic background – so understanding the experience of women can help us to improve diversity more generally.


The topic of discrimination may have arisen in new ways in recent months, but it has a long history. The Institute for Government’s research into the experience of women in the civil service from the 1960s to the 2000s shows that women objecting to being on the receiving end of sexual harassment is certainly not a new thing, as former defence secretary Michael Fallon rather clumsily suggested when he said, “The culture has changed over the years, what might have been acceptable 15, 10 years ago is clearly not acceptable now”.

Likewise, the debate about the gender pay gap, particularly brought to life by complaints directed against the BBC, has deeper roots than just overt discrimination. It’s about the structures of promotion, perception of value, the career-enhancing roles that may or may not be biased in favour of one group of people above all others.

The key issue though in all of this is the role of dominant cultures and the kinds of things that make a difference to promotion. Many female civil servants told us that they didn’t feel exceptionally discriminated against in the civil service; that being a woman didn’t feel like an issue in their development. Compared to many industries in the 1960s, 70s and 80s the civil service did provide much fairer chances and far less abhorrent behaviour.

“Those women, and men, who did not fit the culture and were not ‘in the right place at the right time’ to be noticed, praised and promoted, left the service”

But the statistics tell another story. They show the slow progress into the 2000s in getting women into the senior ranks of the civil service. They also show us that women have still not held key jobs like principal private secretary to the prime minister, permanent secretary of the Treasury and cabinet secretary.

And our interviews also revealed why this might be so. One interviewee talked about being the right sort of “female chap”. The point was that having the right socio-economic and educational background made a difference, but so did having the right kind of temperament. Women who were praised were often praised in overly macho terminology: being strong, aggressive, “feisty”. Those women, and men, who did not fit the culture and were not “in the right place at the right time” to be noticed, praised and promoted, left the service.

These are exactly the kinds of things that need to be tackled to build a diverse workforce, but changing culture is not a quick or easy process. It was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that civil service leaders started making meaningful connections between diversity and a more competent civil service; that you need different skills, temperaments, backgrounds, experiences, knowledge. And even with this recognition, the underlying cultural challenge was not understood. In the 2000s women were still being sent on courses to teach them how to be more assertive.

We know many of the things that matter: networks, mentoring and development support as well as statistics, leadership objectives and professional promotion practices. But alongside all of this, civil servants need to see diverse talent rewarded at the very top of the service. Diversity isn’t just a numbers game, whether those numbers reflect pay gaps, harassment or the composition of a workforce. Diversity is about the culture you work in, and it is reflected in those who get to do the most interesting, the most visible, and the most career-enhancing roles. 

Read the most recent articles written by Dr Catherine Haddon - Scandal-hit Westminster can learn from the history of women in Whitehall

Share this page