DCLG perm sec Melanie Dawes: We lost our way on diversity – but we're back on track

Civil service gender champion Melanie Dawes acknowledges past failure on diversity challenge, but says senior civil service committed to tackling “dangers of group think”


By Sarah Aston

24 Sep 2015

Civil service leaders lost their way on the Whitehall diversity agenda “a few years ago”, DCLG permanent secretary and civil service gender champion Melanie Dawes has said.
 
Speaking at the sixth annual Women into Leadership conference – hosted by CSW’s parent company Dods and the FDA union –  Dawes acknowledged that while senior leaders across Whitehall were "100%" committed to improving diversity in the senior civil service, the agenda had previously gone off track.
 
Discussing the cultural and practical obstacles facing senior women in Whitehall – or those hoping to get into the senior civil service (SCS) – she said: “We kind of lost our way a little bit a couple of years ago on this agenda, if I am truly honest, and I felt that a little bit myself.


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“But I can absolutely reassure you 100% that the commitment at the top of the civil service – among all the permanent secretaries and the wider senior leadership – is absolutely there. We need more diversity, we are all very conscious of the dangers of group think when we don’t have diversity.”
 
Currently, only eight out of 37 officials at permanent secretary level are women, and – according to 2014 figures – only 38% of senior posts are held by women.

Earlier this year, cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood set out a revised "Talent Action Plan" for improving diversity in the civil service after a series of critical reports about the barriers facing officials from under-represented groups.

And on Monday, he announced the appointment of four external advisers from the worlds of business and sport to carry out a “no-holds-barred” assessment of Whitehall’s diversity agenda.

Dawes said that along with better gender networks in departments, a lot of work had been done to improve data on gender diversity, with departments now receiving data about themselves and the wider civil service to compare against.

She said: “We had virtually no cross-cutting data on gender diversity a year ago, that has been massively improved.”

“Macho culture”

During the wide-ranging plenary session, Dawes also discussed the findings of last year’s Hay Group report on the barriers facing women seeking to develop their careers in Whitehall, which include a comments from one female official describing SCS culture as "a bear pit".

Dawes said that women wereoften deterred from senior roles by the perception of a "dog-eat-dog" culture at the top of Whitehall. However, she stressed the need for a more nuanced approach to the stereotype, saying it was important to differentiate between the need to make tough decisions and being "macho".
 
"As a perm sec of sixth months’ standing, but also as a woman, I think the first thing is that we just need to be a little bit careful here," she said.
 
"When you are in senior roles it is tough. You have to make difficult decisions, you have to implement cuts, and sometimes you have to do the very difficult thing that you wish you didn’t have to do – as you know it’s going to have a really hard impact on people – but it’s your job to manage it and make it happen in the most effective way possible.
 
"There is something in the nature of senior leadership which involves doing things which many of us would rather not always have to do. So I just think we need to be a little bit careful when we call those things ‘macho’ or ‘male’ decisions, because if we do so, we turn this into a male space, and almost make our own problem slightly worse."
 
However, she acknowledged that some departmental cultures were more challenging than others.
 
"It varies quite a bit department by department. I have worked in one department – which shall be nameless – where frankly the macho culture was a very, very serious issue indeed."

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