Women in the Civil Service

Emily Batchelor discusses the gender imbalance within the civil service.

A recent job advert outlined a search for someone who will advise the Prime Minister on the implementation of policy and the conduct of government. The job is only open to current and former permanent secretaries and carries the salary of £200,000. The role in question is cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant and policy adviser. This prestigious position has never been held by a woman.

The position of cabinet secretary has become available following the departure of Sir Mark Sedwill, who announced he would be stepping down in this role and as National Security Advisor in September late last month. All eyes are on his successor as they will navigate the Government through COVID-19 and Brexit but also through the Government’s planned reforms and overhaul of Whitehall. Sir Mark’s successor will play a critical role in implementing and determining the reality of this Civil Service shakeup. Succeeding Sir Mark National Security Advisor is David Frost, which prompted serious questions from former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell and former Prime Minister Theresa May, as to the role of political appointees and experience at the highest level of the Civil Service. What is clear is that senior appointments in the Civil Service invite much scrutiny and discussion from commentators. I for one hope this highly competitive process results in the first female cabinet secretary.

Women’s presence and position within the Civil Service is a complicated issue. Generally the Civil Service has been seen to be ahead of the private sector in terms of gender equality - in every year since 2001, more than half of all civil servants have been women. This has increased from 46% in 1991, to 54% in 2018. However, importantly, women are still underrepresented in the senior Civil Service - only 43% of senior civil servants are women, although this has massively increased from 17% in 1996. Overall, the higher up you go in the Civil Service, the lower the proportion of women you will find. This depressing pattern is certainly not unique to Whitehall but emblematic of the reality of gender inequality in 2020.

Historically women have faced significant barriers to working in the Civil Service. The First World War impelled significant change in this area. To release men to join the army the number of women in the Civil Service increased five-fold, approaching 200,000 by the end of WW1. Importantly, few were given real responsibility and the majority were employed as clerks and typists. The marriage bar, which prohibited married women from joining the Civil Service and required women to resign when they became married, was not abolished until 1946 for the Home Civil Service and 1973 for the Foreign Service. Despite the eradication of such legal barriers, women still faced rife sexism within the Civil Service ranks and progress towards gender parity remained slow. The first female Permanent Secretary, Dame Evelyn Sharp, appointed in 1955, pioneered the field but remained an inspirational exception to the norm until the late 1990s.

More recent efforts to improve gender equality have been led by central initiatives. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a 10 Point Plan in 2005 aimed at improving diversity in Civil Service with Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell. His successor Gordon Brown launched a diversity strategy in 2008 (Promoting Equality, Valuing Diversity). Changes to working life in the Civil Service include the introduction of the Working Families' 'Happy to Talk Flexible Working' to the Careers website to open discussion open dialogue around working flexibly and the Civil Service job share finder, which helps civil servants find compatible job-share matches with other Civil Servants. Such efforts are welcome but true gender parity is still fallacious when women do not make the highest echelons of Civil Service power as regularly as men.

The appointment of a new cabinet secretary will demonstrate the progress of these efforts. Female contenders include former permanent secretaries Dame Sharon White and LSE Director Dame Minouche Shafik, as well as current Permanent Secretaries at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Sarah Healey and at the Department for International Trade, Antonia Romeo. The fact that there are several impressive female candidates is proof of welcome progress in the Civil Service, but the appointment holds the promise that another glass ceiling in British politics could be shattered imminently. I hope women will not have much longer for this landmark breakthrough.

Emily Batchelor is a 26-year-old working in the homelessness sector, having previously worked in Westminster for Labour MPs. She recently graduated from King's College London with a MA in Public Policy. She is a strong advocate for social justice, gender equality and poverty alleviation.

She tweets at @EmilyJBatch 
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