The Cabinet Office is considering revealing how many men and women have been shortlisted for the civil service's top jobs, as it responds to criticism of the current lack of female permanent secretaries.
Although women now make up a greater proportion of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) than ever before, a recent reshuffle at the top of Whitehall resulted in two fewer female perm secs than at the start of the process, with women now leading just three government departments.
By contrast, in 2011, 50% of all perm secs were women, prompting then-cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell to say the civil service had become a "genuinely meritocratic" organisation.
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Labour has been particularly critical of the civil service's record on diversity in recent months, questioning whether the dearth of female perm secs is linked to a 2014 move to allow the prime minister to choose departmental chiefs from a list of shortlisted candidates. Previously, the prime minister could only accept or reject one candidate put forward by the Civil Service Commission, which regulates senior Whitehall appointments.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin was grilled on perm sec diversity when he faced MPs on Wednesday for the regular round of Cabinet Office questions.
Letwin admitted that the "brief moment" in 2011 when there had been a 50/50 split between male and female leaders had represented a "spike" which had not been followed up with "long term" change.
But he defended the civil service's wider progress on supporting female leaders, saying the government had done "a great deal to try to make sure that the pool from which we draw the permanent secretaries [...] the directors general, is significantly improving".
He added: "We have now 37% of our directors general who are women and we look to see that move further forward. We need to see that go on throughout the senior civil service."
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Louise Haigh – who told CSW earlier this month that Labour would back positive discrimination in order to level the playing field at perm sec level – pressed Letwin for more detail on the candidates in the running for Whitehall's most senior jobs.
"As the minister has just confirmed, since the prime minister gave himself the power to appoint, 80% of permanent secretaries are now men," she said. "In the spirit of open government, will the minister commit to publishing the shortlists from which the prime minister has appointed?"
Letwin did not rule out such a move, saying he would "go back and talk to colleagues about the methods by which we publish what happens in that procedure".
Questioned later in the session by Labour MP Helen Hayes – who asked Letwin whether the Cabinet Office would "release the gender breakdown of those shortlisted for the role of permanent secretary" to provide "further transparency" – the minister replied: "As I said to the House a few moments ago, we will take that serious suggestion away and come with a view about whether it is possible to release those data without compromising individual sensibilities."
Letwin's pledge to consider Labour's proposal comes after the Cabinet Office last year launched a wide-ranging "Talent Action Plan", which included a promise to end all-male interview panels wherever possible, and saw perm secs themsevles asked to set specific goals for improving the diversity of their departments.
But government has stopped short of introducing quotas to improve the representation of women in the civil service, arguing that such an approach does little to tackle "entrenched biases".