Queen hosts celebration of women in the senior civil service

Dames Stella Rimington and Ursula Brennan among a group of female leaders who gathered at Buckingham Palace to mark growing number of women joining top ranks of civil service

By Suzannah.Brecknell

22 Feb 2017

Above: Her Majesty the Queen meets (from  left) Alison Saunders, head of the Crown Prosecution Service; Dame Ursula Brennan, former perm sec at the MoD and MoJ; first parliamentary counsel Elizabeth Gardiner; Ofcom chief executive Sharon White; and Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5

One in three permanent secretary appointments in the last two and a half years have been given to women, according to latest Cabinet Office figures, released as the Queen welcomed current and former female permanent secretaries to a reception at Buckingham Palace.

Twenty-five female perm secs attended the event celebrating diversity at the top of the civil service, including former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, former defence and justice perm sec Dame Ursula Brennan, and the current head of Ofcom Sharon White.

There are currently ten women holding permanent secretary level posts, about a quarter of all those in the civil service’s top grade. However, just four Whitehall departments are led by a female permanent secretary – including the international trade department which will soon be led by Antonia Romeo. The Welsh and Scottish governments are also both led by women.

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Speaking after the event, Sue Owen, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and diversity champion for the civil service said: “I was delighted to welcome so many women who have broken the glass ceiling past and present to get to the very top of the civil service.

“Women make up more than half the civil service and we benefit from their skills. It is absolutely right that women should be properly represented at the highest levels. Whilst the first female permanent secretary was appointed in 1955, it is only in the last decade or so that real progress has been made.

“We want this trend to intensify. We will support women at every level to achieve their full potential and to know they can reach the very top.”

The first female permanent secretary, Baroness Evelyn Sharp, was appointed to lead the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Sharp had joined the civil service in 1926 just one year after women were allowed to apply.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service said the civil service was "committed to being a place where everyone can thrive regardless of background, with the aim of becoming the most inclusive employer in the UK".

He added: “Currently, over 40% of the senior civil service are women. But there is still more to do, which is why we are determined to build on our progress to date by removing any remaining barriers for women and other underrepresented groups in the civil service.”

Writing in a blog last year, Heywood said nearly half (45%) of all new appointments into the senior civil service had gone to women in the previous year.

“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,” he wrote.

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