Government equality chief warns civil servants to be aware of gender bias in appraisals

Head of the Government Equalities Office tells Women into Leadership conference that at current rate of tackling gender pay gap will not reach parity until 2050


By Tamsin Rutter

21 Sep 2017

Hilary Spencer, director of the Government Equalities Office.

The head of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has challenged all civil servants to think about their preconceptions as an appraisal system now used in Whitehall "has proven to be quite gender biased" in some other organisations.

Hilary Spencer, director of the GEO said that gender bias has become apparent in "the ratings given by both men and women about women" in some 360-degree feedback systems, and called on civil servants to think about what they expect and tolerate in others.

In 2015-16, a single 360-degree feedback tool was introduced for the whole senior civil service, a method under which senior leaders receive feedback from everyone they work with – grades both above and below them – in order to get a full appreciation of their work.

While there is no evidence of gender bias in the feedback system used by the civil service, Spencer warned civil servants to be aware of their own biases when filling in appraisals.


Spencer – who has worked in a number of roles across government including in HR, education policy with the World Bank, and as principal private secretary to Michael Gove – said that “most of us have quite a lot of double standards".

"We expect women to be kind and we judge them very harshly when they are not, even if men are displaying exactly the same behaviour,” she added, speaking to hundreds of delegates at the Women into Leadership conference on 20 September in London.

She told delegates the gender pay gap in the GEO is currently negative, meaning that women are paid more than men on average, whereas it is currently 18.1% in the economy as a whole, around 12% in the civil service and 5.9% in the Department for Education, which was the first government department to publish its figure.

At the current rate of change gender parity will not exist until 2050, Spencer added.

The pay gap accelerates sharply for women after childbirth, with hourly wages for women a third of those of men by the time they have a child of 12 years old.

Typically the gap grows at about 2% a year, but at 4% for professional women with degrees, which is "potentially bad luck for quite a lot of us", Spencer said.

She insisted that the government's decision to force all employers with more than 250 staff to calculate and publish their gender pay gap was "world-leading legislation".

"Only about 40% said they even calculated their gender pay gap,” she said. "We expect it will lead to further action to close the gap."

She also pointed to the new civil service returners scheme, which will offer bespoke training to staff returning from a career break.

Spencer called on delegates at Women into Leadership – which is organised by the FDA trade union and Civil Service World's parent company Dods – to put pressure on their departments to start collecting data on pay gaps, and to analyse and act on it.

The Department for Education, for example, found that it needed to target resources on tackling the gender pay gap for civil servants at grade 7 in particular. 

Spencer stressed the civil service was one of the best employers in terms of flexible working, job sharing and gender diversity. 

"Being paid to work on something you feel genuinely passionate about is one of the great joys of the civil service," she said.

But, asked by a member of the audience about support for women returning to work for whom job sharing is not a financially viable option, she cited Vodafone as an example of best practice.

The phone company pays female returners a full salary but only expects them to work four days a week for their first year. This investment in their staff saves them money in recruitment costs over the longer term, Spencer said.

"We shouldn't just assume that job shares are the only solution," she said.

  • This story was updated on 21 September to make it clear that gender bias is not apparent in the civil service's own appraisal system.

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