Jeremy Heywood: perm sec gender balance not good enough – but pipeline of leaders is there

Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood responds after critics point to lack of female leaders at the very top of Whitehall

By Matt Foster

16 May 2016

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has defended the civil service's record on the representation of women in its top ranks, after criticism of a clean sweep of male appointments at permanent secretary level.

Competition and Markets Authority chief Alex Chisholm was last week named as perm sec at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), filling the last of several vacancies at the top of Whitehall that have emerged since the new year.

Two female departmental chiefs – Una O'Brien at the Department of Health and HM Revenue and Customs' chief Lin Homer – have left the civil service this year, but new perm sec-level appointments at HMRC, Health, the Ministry of Defence, Department for Education, the Treasury and now Decc have not resulted in any more women taking on top jobs.

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The news of Chisholm's appointment prompted criticism from shadow Cabinet Office minister Louise Haigh, who told CSW that the civil service's glass ceiling appeared to have been "painstakingly reassembled and reinforced".

Meanwhile, Jill Rutter from the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank – herself a former senior Treasury official – took to the IfG's blog to point out that women now lead departments accounting for just 6% of all public spending and warn that the civil service appeared to be struggling to tackle its "long history of women struggling to break through that top barrier".

Heywood has now responded directly to Rutter's intervention, and while the cabinet secretary's latest blogpost on GOV.UK acknowledges that the latest round of appointments has "not represented the gender diversity we are determined to achieve", he points to progress on female representation in the wider organisation.

"This is clearly disappointing, but it is not remotely reflective of the wider trends across the leadership of the civil service," Heywood writes.

The cabinet secretary points out that women now make up "nearly 40%" of the Senior Civil Service (SCS), a rise of almost five percent on 2010 levels, and some distance from the 16.7% of the SCS that was female when the top tier was established in its modern form in 1996.

"In some departments, 50% or more of SCS are women and across the whole of the SCS the proportion of new appointments going to women in the last year has been 45%," Heywood says. "So I am very confident that we are now building a deep and rich pipeline of outstanding senior women who will be the future leaders of the civil service."

And while Heywood says the civil service is "still not doing well enough" at perm sec level, he reiterates a series of commitments the organisation has made in recent years to try and increase the diversity of Whitehall's leaders.

"Our Talent Action Plan made it clear that single-gender panels in recruitment and shortlists are now by absolute exception," the cabinet secretary says.

"More widely, we are increasing the take-up of unconscious bias training among our managers, with a particular focus on those involved in assessing and recruiting. Since the launch of the Talent Action Plan, over 100,000 civil servants have taken training to counter unconscious bias. 

He adds: "We are also aware that we need to continue to support the development of our employees, creating a talented and diverse pipeline for our most senior roles. To this end, we have committed to a review of the way in which the civil service defines and identifies ‘talent’.

"We will use more inclusive ways to identify potential and ensure there is a clear pathway for all talented civil servants, with a particular focus on those from under-represented groups."

Heywood also highlights the Individual Development Programme introduced by the civil service in 2014, with the aim of providing support for officials at director general level who are looking to make the leap to heading up a department.

The cabinet secretary points out that 40% of those taking part in the programme are women, and says ensuring the "proper representation" of women on both the IDP and the Fast Stream graduate programme will help ensure "that our future talent pipelines are consistent with our diversity goals".

"The ambition to create a civil service that is truly inclusive and representative of wider society is supported by leaders across the organisation, including our civil service diversity champions and all permanent secretaries.

"And, as head of the civil service, I have personally committed to making this a top priority. Talented individuals must be able to progress, regardless of who they are or what their background is. This, of course, means more women in our permanent secretary posts in the future."


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