Civil service has lost "next generation" of female leaders – ex-Home Office chief Helen Ghosh

Exclusive: Former Home Office permanent secretary says fall in the number of female permanent secretaries is “very disappointing” – and says lack of senior women in the Treasury could be to blame

By Sam Macrory

17 Jun 2016

Former Home Office permanent secretary Dame Helen Ghosh has warned that the civil service has lost an entire “generation” of female talent.

In an interview with CSW, Dame Helen – who led the Home Office from 2011 to 2012 – also criticised the “very disappointing” fall in the number of female permanent secretaries from eight in 2009 to just three today. 

“When there were eight of us, when 50% of the big departments were run by women, it looked, on the face of it, as though there was a good pipeline of women at the director and director general level to come through. The question for me is where did those people go? That next generation kind of disappeared," said Dame Helen, who left the department in 2012 to become director general of the National Trust.

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The problem, she suggested, is in part due to a failure to promote women to senior roles at the Treasury.

“It is still the case that for a number of departments having had some experience of the Treasury, or being Treasury-connected, is an important thing. Somehow the Treasury has not, in recent years, brought on significant numbers of women into their senior roles which then feed into the permanent secretary pipeline.”

Dame Helen also warned that the demands of the government’s civil service reform agenda may have had a damaging effect on the willingness of women to pursue careers in Whitehall.

“I always thought that women have to show other women that being a permanent secretary is an enjoyable thing to do and I sometimes wonder whether some women looked up to us and thought 'blimey, do they look as though they are enjoying it?’ I wonder whether some of the women who were in that pipeline just looked at us and thought ‘I don't know whether actually this job is particularly enjoyable… perhaps I’ll go and do something more enjoyable instead.”

Once tipped to be the first female cabinet secretary, Dame Helen, who also served as permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, suggested that no women were likely be appointed to the civil service's most senior role any time soon.

"I sometimes wonder whether some women looked up to us and thought 'blimey, do they look as though they are enjoying it?’" – Dame Helen Ghosh

“It’s back to this point of what’s the pool from which they are chosen? And they are chosen from people who have some kind of Treasury background.

"The relationship between Number 10 and the Treasury is such an absolutely important one that any prime minister is going to look for that kind of connection in their choice. Until you get more women at the Treasury at senior positions it will be a rare woman who could get to be the Cabinet Secretary.”

Earlier this week, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin said his department would consider revealing how many men and women had been shortlisted for the civil service's top jobs, as the government responded to criticism of the current lack of female perm secs.

Although women now occupy 37% of all directors-general jobs –the grade below perm sec level – a recent reshuffle at the very top of Whitehall resulted in two fewer female perm secs than at the start of the process.

Women now lead just three government departments, with the Institute for Government estimating that female leaders are now in charge of departments responsible for 6% of all public spending. 

CSW's full interview with Dame Helen will be published next week.

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