For the 233,000 or so women employed in the UK civil service, there was some good news last week. Recent concerted efforts to increase the number of senior women in central government have paid off. Civil servants, of any gender, can be proud that they work for the organisation with the highest number of female senior officials in Europe and the fourth-highest of the G20 countries.
Compiled by consultants, EY, the most recent index of female officials in senior central government posts shows Canada comfortably in the lead when it comes to promoting women to its most senior posts. But the index also shows that there is not a single G20 country where 50% of top government posts are held by women.
Even in Canada, with a longstanding programme of affirmative action, there is still not an equal gender balance in top government jobs: 46% of senior officials in Canada are women.
Of the 19 G20 nations (the EU, in the form of the European commission and the European Central Bank, takes up the other G20 place), Australia comes second, with 40%, then South Africa, with almost 40%.
The striking thing about the list is that the UK has made it to fourth place despite the fact that less than 40% of our most senior civil servants are women. Since women make up over half (54%) of the total civil service workforce, this shows how quickly the numbers drop off at the top levels.
Of the European countries, Italy comes second after the UK, with 32% of women in senior government jobs, putting it in eighth place in the G20. France (28%) and Germany (21%) are lagging, coming in 12th and 13th respectively.
But EY’s head of government and public sector, Björn Conway, says our European neighbours are catching up fast. According to Conway, some European countries, such as France and Germany, have introduced policies to address the gender pay gap and increase female representation. The UK government needs to maintain momentum in increasing the gender diversity of its senior management, he says, and in closing the pay gap.worldwide
On average, women in UK central government departments are paid 6.3% less than men doing equivalent jobs. There’s only one department – Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – where women are, on average, paid more than men. It’s perhaps surprising that the biggest pay gap is in one of Whitehall’s newer departments, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, where women at the department’s senior grades are paid, on average, 17% less than their male counterparts.
It’s not just on pay where there are big differences between central government departments. EY’s report highlights, as many commentators have been saying for the past five years, the worrying ease with which progress can be lost. Both the Home Office and the Department for Education have slipped back since 2011. That year, the DfE had more women than men in its senior team – 57% – but the figure has now fallen to 43%.
Only two departments, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and Communities and Local Government (DCLG), have a 50-50 split between senior women and men. The Department of Health is a close third, with 49% of women in senior roles. At the bottom end of the league table linger the Ministry of Defence, where only 27% of senior officials are women, and the Foreign Office, with has just 26%.
And when it comes to the most senior jobs of all – the permanent secretaries – it’s even worse. This year has already seen the resignations of two female permanent secretaries, with Una O’Brien leaving Health and leaving HMRC. That leaves just three female bosses in the 17 main civil service departments: Melanie Dawes at DCLG, Sue Owen at DCMS and Clare Moriarty at Defra.
As Jill Rutter, programme director of the Institute for Government thinktank, has pointed out, the loss of both O’Brien and Homer threatens to knock back progress even further from its high water mark in March 2011, when there was, briefly, a 50-50 gender balance among the permanent secretaries.
The EY report looks exclusively at gender, but there are other areas, too, where despite its best avowed intentions the UK civil service still needs to work on improving diversity. In 2015, the National Audit Office noted that only 7% of senior civil servants in 2014 were from a minority ethnic background. And after some initial progress, said the NAO, representation of people with disabilities at senior civil service level has remained low – just 5% in 2014.