Minority report

New figures given to parliament suggest that women, ethnic minorities and disabled staff are winning a smaller proportion of promotions than was the case in 2009. Suzannah Brecknell examines the data to find out more


By Suzannah.Brecknell

22 May 2014

Between 2009 and 2013, the proportion of promotions awarded to black and ethnic minority (BME) staff fell in most civil service departments, according to information provided in response to a series of parliamentary questions submitted earlier this year by Labour’s shadow equalities minister Sharon Hodgson. In the 11 departments which provided data for these years, the share of promotions going to BME staff fell in eight departments, and rose in two. It remained constant in one – but given that the proportion was 0%, this cannot be regarded as a good result.  

“Ministers should be setting an example to companies when it comes to breaking down barriers for ethnic minority employees,” Hodgson says. “Instead, most departments have gone backwards since Labour was in government, and some drastically so.” She’s referring to the departments for transport, communities and health, which have all seen the share of promotions won by BME staff falling by half since 2009.  

The civil service is “still too much of a closed shop,” Hodgson continues. “Government must be representative of the people it serves.” At the broadest level, the civil service is making progress towards this goal: the overall representation of BME staff in the service rose slightly between 2009 and 2013 (from 9.2% to 9.6%), as did the representation of disabled staff (now at 8.6%), while representation of women remained constant at 53%. But these groups remain poorly represented at senior levels: women made up 36% of the senior civil service in March 2013, BME staff 5% and disabled staff 4.6%. 

Former senior civil servant Siobhan Benita, now head of policy and strategy at the University of Warwick’s economics department, believes that this imbalance “matters tremendously, as this sets the whole culture and tone of the organisation. Without diverse role models at the top of an organisation, it is harder for employees to aspire to senior levels. Diversity has to be seen, not just spoken about.”

Head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake speaks often of the importance of focusing on diversity, writing on his blog last year that “there can be no let-up in the enthusiasm with which we are promoting diversity at all levels of our organisation.” Indeed, these figures confirm that there is no room to be complacent about diversity in the civil service. The proportion of promotions going to women fell in seven of the 11 departments, rising in three and remaining constant in one. There’s been some improvement for disabled staff, however: five departments have seen a rise in the proportion of their promoted staff who have a disability, against four reporting a fall. And, as ever with statistics, a little context creates a more nuanced picture.

Overall representation
Firstly it’s important to consider not just the proportion of promotions going to any given group, but how that compares to their representation in the department overall. If BME staff only make up 4% of a department we’d expect them, all things being equal, to gain roughly 4% of promotions. So if they win 5% of promotions, it’s a positive outcome – at least in terms of promoting existing ethnic minority staff, if not in recruiting new ones.

In this context, the figures for women start to look more encouraging. Though promotion rates are falling, women are often doing better than we might expect given the overall diversity profile of a department. For example, in the energy department the share of promotions going to women fell from 55% 2010-11 to 51% in 2012-13. But women made up just 43 and 45% of the department overall in these years, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, so they are over-represented among promoted staff.

Disabled and BME staff, however, appear often to be under-represented in promotions (though it’s hard to be sure, because the figures on ethnic background and disability status include a proportion of staff who’ve declined to say whether they fall into a BME or disabled category). Benita suggests that the picture may be more positive for women because “some of the women’s networks and mentoring schemes in departments are now more mature and working well”, compared to those for other groups. She adds that “there has also been more emphasis on the gender issues than on other diversity strands – so to improve across the board, the light needs to be shone in a similar way on other groups and what can be done to support them.”

Sample size, data variations
Another important context to consider is the sample sizes we’re looking at. In smaller departments – and especially since promotions have been limited as budgets shrink – the numbers of promoted staff are, in some cases, extremely low: in one year at DCLG, just 11 staff were promoted. In a group this small, one or two people can make a huge difference to the proportions. In addition, diversity data may not be known for all staff in a department (for example, if they joined before the department started collecting this data). So where a department – such as DCMS – appears to have promoted no BME staff, it may be explained by a quirk of data collection or an individual’s wish for privacy.

Where departments lack robust diversity data on their staff, does this in itself tell us something about the organisation? Dianah Worman, who leads research and public policy work on diversity at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, suggests that it could point to lack of engagement with the diversity agenda in that organisation. It might also suggest poor staff engagement: if staff do not trust their employer to respect confidentiality and protect data appropriately, or if they are not fully engaged with and convinced of the importance of promoting diversity, they may be disinclined to provide information on their background.

Another context to consider is the financial and organisational pressures under which the civil service has operated since 2009. Worman suggests that the background of significant change could be affecting the decisions on who to promote. “If those decisions are being made under pressure,” she says, “it could be that [people] are reverting to old practices” as training about unconscious bias and equal opportunities are “eroded” by the pressure to deliver more with less.

Benita also draws a link between weakening progress on diversity and budgetary pressures: “Training budgets have been hit hard by austerity, so some specific courses which were aimed at supporting minority groups – for example, to prepare for promotion or develop particular skills – may have been reduced, which has a knock-on effect on any cohort of people looking to progress.”

Beyond this, she suggest that “the fact that the civil service has not had a proper diversity strategy for a long while has sent negative signals and allowed management to lessen the focus on diversity issues.” This reflects the concern of former permanent secretary diversity champion Sir Paul Jenkins, who told CSW shortly before his departure that he regretted the fact that there was still no new diversity strategy as he left. “I believe very strongly that we need a single, coherent approach [to diversity] across the whole of the civil service,” he said. “We need to know where we’re trying to get to. It’s not good enough to say we aspire to look like the population we represent... We’ve got to show how we get there, through milestones or whatever.” The use of targets, he believes, is the strongest way to improve BME promotions: progress on improving the diversity of the SCS, he told CSW, has “stalled, and it is now getting worse”.

Benita is still more explicit in calling for representation targets to help drive diversity in the civil service. “Unlike [mandatory] quotas, which can allow departments to parachute in particular individuals to senior positions without necessarily addressing the underlying issues, setting targets forces a department to scrutinise and improve its processes and behaviours at all levels,” she says. “When we did set diversity targets for departments, we saw a marked improvement in many areas – and, crucially, the pipeline of talent started to increase in its diversity, which you need for any sustainable solution.” 

Sir Bob Kerslake has indicated that a new diversity strategy is on the way, and permanent secretaries do have targets for improving diversity in their departments. But as Benita indicates, a target in itself is not enough: the benefit comes only if that target is strong and public enough to increase the focus on diversity.

To improve the diversity profile of an organisation at senior levels, says Worman, teams must use data to build a deep understanding of diversity at all levels, and to understand the many “hidden reasons why some people don’t go forward [in their career]”. Only once these challenges are understood can organisations act to successfully tackle them. In this context, it’s encouraging that most departments do at least have the data available to look at promotion rates for under-represented groups. The key question, for those concerned about diversity at the top of the civil service, will be whether leaders are prepared to act on what the data tells them.

Departmental findings

DCLG did well on gender: compared to representation in the department overall, women are over-represented among promoted staff in three of the five years for which data is provided, with a significant over-representation of 12 percentage points in 2013.

However, the share of promotions going to BME staff fell from 22.6% in 2009 to 13.1% in 2013; the proportion of promotions going to disabled staff also fell, from 6.5% to 4.4%. For both of these groups, however, it’s not possible to see how promotion rates relate to overall representation, as the department didn’t include its ‘not known’ figures (see Methodology).






Of the three years for which DCMS provided data, women made up 60% of promoted staff in 2011, rising to 67% in 2012 and falling to 44% in 2013. This last figure roughly equates to the overall representation of women in the department, which at March 2012 was 45.3%. In the other two years, women were significantly over represented among promoted staff.

It appears that there were no BME staff promoted in 2012 and 2013, but in both of these years there were high numbers of staff with unknown or not-reported ethnicity among promoted groups, which could mean that staff are not reporting their ethnicity on internal systems.

There is a similar picture among disabled staff – with no promotions reported in 2011 and 2013, but high levels of staff who did not declare their disability status. A DCMS spokesperson said: “Employees are able to choose whether to declare their ethnicity or to declare a disability, so it’s difficult to have robust data to determine the promotion rates.” They added that the department takes part in the “civil service Positive Action Pathway Programme, which was set up to help under-represented groups who are thinking about taking the next step in their careers.”


The proportion of promotions going to women in the MoD rose slightly from 45 to 47% between 2009-10 and 2012-13, though it fell in the intervening years. Nonetheless in every year it was higher than the representation of women in the department overall, which was between 38.6 and 37.9% in the same period.

The proportion of BME staff in MoD has been rising steadily since 2009, and is now at 3.8%. The proportion of promotions going to BME staff was falling between 2009-10 and 2011-12, but rose substantially in 2012-13 and is now, at 4.3%, well above 2009 levels. And in each year, BME staff have been over-represented among promoted staff. No data was provided for disability.




The share of promotions going to women fell from 64% in 2008-09 to 61% in 2012-13 – though this remains the highest among the departments which provided data, and women were over-represented in promotions in every year. Disabled staff won 4% of promotions in 2012-13 – more than previously – but they remain under-represented, compared to an overall representation of around 7% in the department.

The proportion of promotions going to BME staff has remained broadly similar since 2009-10, beginning the period at 11.6% and ending it at 11.3%. High numbers of ‘not knowns’ among promoted staff make it hard to judge the years until 2010-11, but since then the number of ‘not knowns’ among all staff and promoted staff has been roughly aligned. Unless those figures mask ugly truths, ethnic minorities appear to be getting a fair deal in DfE promotions. 

A DfE spokesperson said that “all appointments and promotions must follow our recruitment process, and be made on merit, following fair and open competition,” adding that the department takes part in a number of schemes to support the progression of under-represented groups.


The share of promotions going to women dropped from 55% in 2010-11 to 51% in 2012-13, though they are still significantly over-represented. Promotion rates for disabled staff have risen from 4% to 6%, but there are high levels of unreported staff.

DECC has high promotion rates for BME staff – 9%, 17% and 18% of promotions went to BME staff in each of the years, compared to overall representation levels of 8.6%, 10.3% and 10.7% respectively. However, there are low non-declaration rates for promoted staff compared to high rates of non-declaration in the ONS figures for overall representation, so it’s hard to say whether the high promotion rates are a true over-representation or due to the different ways data has been collected.




In Defra women won 57.7% of promotions in 2009-10, and 52% in 2012-13. They remain over-represented in promotions, but overall representation in the department has fallen, from 49.7% to 45.3%.

The proportion of promotions going to disabled staff has risen from 2.1% to 6%, with a very high proportion of 15.8% in 2010-11. However, the share of promotions going to BME staff has fallen from 8.6% to 7%. For both areas, it’s not possible to compare this with overall representation, as the department did not provide data on the proportion of promotions going to staff whose background is not known or reported.

A spokesperson comments that Defra supports cross-government schemes such as the Positive Actions Pathway, and is setting up a staff women’s network.


Between 2009 and 2013, representation of disabled staff in DH has remained fairly constant, dipping just 0.5% to 6.2% in 2013. The proportion of promotions won by disabled staff has risen slightly over the same period, from 5% to 7%. 

The share of promotions going to women rose sharply from 2009 to 2010, from 57 to 70%, then gradually fell to 2013, ending at just 52%. By contrast, representation of women across all staff stayed fairly constant at around 56%, so DH has moved from having over-representation of women among promoted staff to a four percentage point under-representation.

There is a similar picture in terms of the proportion of promotions going to non-‘white British’ staff (this was the definition the department used in its PQ data). DH appaers to have the highest BME promotion rate of all departments: in 2010, 67% of promoted staff were from non-white British ethnic groups. But this may simply reflect the very broad definition it has chosen for its ethnic minority data.



The FCO figures refer to people who successfully pass promotion boards, though they may not be actually promoted in the same financial year.

The proportion of women succeeding in promotion boards fell by just over 1% to 49.7% in 2012-13, while overall representation rose slightly, meaning there is a seven percentage point gap between representation in the department and among staff who were recommended for promotion.

Overall representation of disabled staff in the department is also rising slowly, though representation among promoted staff is falling after a rise in 2010. And the proportion of promotions going to BME staff has fallen very slightly from 10.1 to 9.5%, but it’s not possible to give reliable context because of high levels of non-reported ethnicity in the ONS data.

An FCO spokesperson said: “We are currently undertaking a review of our promotion systems which will include an external review of our model.” 


Representation of women in the Home Office is falling, from 56% of the overall department in 2009-10 to 52% in 2012-13. The share of promotions going to women has also fallen, from 56 to 49%, and women have been under-represented in promotions in every year.
The proportion of disabled staff  has risen slightly, to 9% in 2012-13; and they have been more successful in promotions, with 5% going to a disabled staff member in 2012-13 compared to 4% in 2009-10. 

The proportion of promotions going to BME staff has risen from 21% to 24%. Overall representation has fallen slightly from 25% to 23%, but broadly promotions appear to line up with representation.

A Home Office spokesperson said the department is “committed to ensuring fairness for the individual and making the most of the talent we employ This commitment to diversity has been publicly acknowledged by a series of awards – most recently being among the Times top 50 employers for women.”

The share of promotions awarded to women dropped from 46 to 37%, though there was a fairly large rise 2010-11. Meanwhile, overall representation of women in the department has risen, so women have been under-represented among promoted staff and the gap has been growing. However, DfID still has a good gender diversity profile at senior levels: 43% of its SCS are women, compared to 37% across the civil service.

The proportion of promotions going to BME staff was rising from 2008-9 to 2011-12, growing from 4.9 to 9.1%. It fell sharply in 2012-13, to 5.4%, but this could be an anomaly: on average, DfID promoted just 82 people a year in this period. No disability data was provided due to small numbers of disabled staff. 

DfID has recently set up a Global Diversity Network to share ideas and best practice on how to increase diversity in the department’s workforce.


The proportion of women among promoted staff rose from 54% to 64% between 2011-12 and 2012-13. This was a significant over-representation among promoted staff in both years. At the very top levels, MoJ has a good gender profile: half of its senior executive board are women, including the permanent secretary.

BME staff are also over-represented among promoted staff – by seven percentage points in 2011-12 and 10 in 2012-13. The proportion of promotions going to disabled staff also grew, though from a low base of 1% to 2%. The MoJ has recently run a series of workshops on mental health in the workplace in partnership with the charity Mind, and is about to run a series of regional events on the topic as part of plans to broaden its support for staff with mental as well as physical health challenges.




Women won 43% of promotions in 2008-09 and 47% in 2012-13, and were over-represented in three of the five years covered. The share of promotions going to BME staff rose slightly over the period, but BME staff were under-represented in most years. Disabled staff were also under-representated in three of the five years, and there was a small fall in the proportion of promotions going to disabled staff, from 5.5% to 4%.

A spokesperson said the Treasury has several schemes in place to support staff from under-represented groups, and its executive management board regularly monitors diversity statistics.




The share of promotions going to women was 46% in 2008-09 and in 2012-13,though it dipped slightly in between. Over the whole period, the overall representation of women in DfT has grown, from 34.5% in 2008-09 to 37.3% in 2012-13, and in most years women have been over-represented among promoted staff. 

The proportion of BME staff in DfT remained broadly constant at around 13%. While the proportion of promotions going to BME staff went up and down slightly, they were under-represented in every year, with an average gap of seven percentage points between the representation of BME staff in the department overall, and representation among promoted groups.

The proportion of promotions going to disabled staff dropped from 8% to 6%, but this was still higher than overall representation in the department, which remained constant around 4%.
A spokesperson for the DfT said the department actively supports cross-government diversity work, adding: “Promotions are always on merit, and the best candidate is selected following a thorough process.

DWP seems to give a very high proportion of promotions to women, with figures of between 59.6% and 67.5% over the five years. However, it’s not possible to say how this lines up against the proportion of women in the workforce, because the ONS data is presented along very different organisational boundaries from the department’s PQ answers. Promotion rates among disabled staff are fairly constant, hovering at around 4%, and the proportion of promotions going to BME staff has risen from 8.8 to 10.9%, peaking at 20% in 2011-12 – but again, we can’t provide data on overall representation. A spokesperson said the department is “committed to equality and valuing diversity”. 


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