There are still too few women at the top of Whitehall – here's what the Home Office is doing to change that

Jo Hopkins, chair of the Home Office women’s network and senior sponsor of the Gender Equality Network, welcomes the steps being taken to encourage women from all backgrounds to join the civil service – and says the barriers women face are not just around gender but also race, ethnicity, sexuality, faith, age and background

By Jo Hopkins

20 Jul 2016

Gender equality has been widely promoted across the civil service but the proportion of women in the senior civil service is still not representative of the talent across the organisation more broadly.

I joined the Home Office in 2000, from university, as an executive officer in Liverpool. My leadership journey was done “the hard way”. I was not a fast streamer and much of my career has been based outside of London, in the north-west, and for the last four years in Cardiff.

I was able to overcome any barriers or fears about my background with a mixture of determination, seizing opportunities and often a leap of faith. 

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Experience of policy, working with ministers and delivering a national programme gave me the opportunity to gain the breadth of skills and experiences needed for the SCS. So how do we make these opportunities available to all and encourage those who think that their face doesn’t fit, that it does?

The Home Office is committed to supporting gender equality in the workplace and the former home secretary, Theresa May, outlined her personal investment in improving diversity in a speech on Home Office reform last year. More than 51.9% of our overall workforce is female, but we still have more to do to ensure this is reflected in senior positions.

"A more complex conversation"

As chair of the Home Office women’s network and now a senior sponsor of the newly formed Gender Equality Network, I have played an active role in developing this area. The Home Office has flourishing staff networks supporting colleagues to ensure we continue working towards being a truly diverse and inclusive organisation. Progressive initiatives around parenting and flexible working have also led to the Home Office being consistently placed in The Times' Top 50 employers for women.

My experience has led to one of my personal priorities being “outreach” work to inspire women from diverse backgrounds to join and succeed in the civil service. I have spoken at a number of events and leadership programmes in universities and to groups of young people considering a career or higher education options. In my work I encourage young people, particularly undergraduate women, to think about joining the civil service by sharing my leadership journey and try to dispel some of the myths around its culture that may hold people back from applying. 

"More than 51.9% of our overall workforce is female, but we still have more to do to ensure this is reflected in senior positions"

What I discovered from these discussions is that the barriers women face are not just around gender but also race, ethnicity, sexuality, faith, age and increasingly their background – who they are, where they are from and their own identity. Many young women are still concerned about work-life balance, the impact of having a family and flexible working. But beneath this, there was often a more complex conversation around the perception that the civil service is inaccessible as a career option to those who have not attended certain universities, university at all, or are based outside London.

These preconceptions are a real concern for an organisation looking to encourage talented people from all backgrounds to contribute to our mission to keep citizens safe and the country secure. As a result, the Home Office is working with Aberystwyth University to analyse some of the barriers to progression for undergraduate women from lower socio-economic backgrounds and better understand what influences their career choices. Later the project will be expanded to work with Home Office staff and A-level students attending Aberystwyth Summer University. The research, which uses an innovative psychological approach, will be led by Saffron Passam and is expected to be completed in the autumn.

We hope that this research will help inform our work on removing the barriers to entering and progressing to senior positions in the Home Office for these young women. It will help shape our approach to outreach and the recruitment and retention of talented women.

If we truly want to realise the vision for a “Brilliant Civil Service”, as set out by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood last month month, then we really do have to do more to recognise and overcome the complex barriers to doing so. This is a small step, but one that will support this ambition to ensure that our civil service is a true reflection of the society that we serve.  

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