DIT chief Sir Martin Donnelly: confronting civil service sexism should not be optional

 “We have to be intolerant of the wrong behaviours and celebrate the right ones," says international trade perm sec, as he reflects on drive to achieve gender parity in the Department for Business

By Jonathan Owen

22 Sep 2016

Civil service leaders need to take a zero-tolerance approach to sexism and other bad behaviour or risk progress on diversity going into reverse, according to Sir Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade.

Donnelly, who during his near-six-year stint as perm sec of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) succeeded in creating gender parity throughout the organisation, including at senior levels, said: “We have to be intolerant of the wrong behaviours and celebrate the right ones.”

Speaking on Wednesday at the seventh annual Women into Leadership conference – hosted by CSW's parent company Dods and the FDA union – he reflected on how achieving equal representation of men and women in BIS’s top roles had not been easy.

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“It took me probably four years to get into the darker corners of the organisation where they were quite happy with the way they did things and they would do the minimum to agree with you…in the end I had to move some of the senior leaders around,” he said.

Donnelly – who has now moved to become perm sec of the newly-created DIT while it finds its feet – stressed the importance of colleagues opening up to each other, as a way of creating good teams and bonding people together.

But the perm sec, who revealed to delegates that he had been a single parent and had, earlier in his career, experienced workplace bullying, admitted this was easier said than done.

“I slowly came to realise that I was part of the problem, I set the tone for the department,” but “people didn’t really know me.”

He added: “I had to be more personal, and I found that hard.” However, Donnelly described how he opened up to his staff, including holding meetings with small groups of women where they would share problems and discuss issues, something he said was “humbling.”

Being open with your colleagues is vital in creating mutual trust within teams, he argued: “I found they responded to me better because I told them who I really was, including my vulnerabilities.”

Donnelly commented: “The most important thing was that there was no trade-off when it came to appraisals between behaviours and outputs.

"You weren’t allowed to be brilliant at dealing with ministerial crises and just occasionally shouting at people because they were useless in your team […] that wasn’t how we did things. And if you want to behave like that you have to go somewhere else.”

The key to organisational change is that “it’s not optional,” he said.

“If we want to have a genuinely diverse, welcoming, supportive environment we have got to call it when it’s not there. And if people want to be great solo artists they can go somewhere else. I was really very clear about that,” the perm sec added.

He concluded his remarks by appealing to delegates: “I want you to promise to be intolerant of bad behaviours, as well as celebrating good behaviours because this culture of openness and diversity and high performance and supportive teamwork – it’s like a balloon, you only need one or two small holes in it, and all the air goes out.”

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