In many of the largest Western-style democracies, men working in the public sector are now finding themselves in a minority. In Australia, women make up 58% of the public service workforce, in Canada women comprise 55%, and in the UK 54% of all civil servants are women.
Yet female domination is not equating to female decision-making power – the glass ceiling remains. While the G20 public service workforce is numerically gender equal, women hold barely a quarter of senior positions.
Nor is it equating to full workplace equality. While these governments are demanding businesses take action on the pay gap, many of their own houses are not in order. The UK Civil Service has a 13% pay gap (an average yearly salary difference of almost $5,000), and women’s salaries in the Australian Public Service are on average 9% lower than men’s.
The figures clearly indicate a need for comprehensive, long-term action. However, two groups of women working in London’s government are no longer waiting for top-down, structural change.
“The Mayor of London is a self-proclaimed feminist. I genuinely believe that he and his top team care about gender equality”
“We are underrepresented in senior leadership positions in public life across this city,” said Siobhán McKenna, a senior social policy advisor in city government in London.
“There are real issues – by no means exclusive to my organisation – about how you develop talent, and about how you get managers to see potential, particularly in women. There’s that old saying that men are promoted on potential, and women are promoted on track record…”
That “old saying” reached City Hall through Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book that has sold more than two million copies worldwide and calls on women to “lean in” and strive for leadership positions.
A powerful offshoot of the book is a growing global network of Lean In Circles – small regular meeting groups of women peers. There are now more than 33,000 Circles in over 150 countries, including groups of women in tech, in the media, and in finance.
In London, there are now also two Circles in the city government.
“I set them up this time last year when the new administration was transitioning into office,” said McKenna. “The Mayor of London is a self-proclaimed feminist. I genuinely believe that he and his top team care about gender equality and are strong advocates for diversity.”
“There are lots of training and mentoring programmes available in the organisation but it felt like there was this absence of space for women to talk about their careers and workplace issues – how to deal with a tricky line manager or colleague, how to progress, how to support each other with the recruitment process,” said McKenna.
The six to eight member circles have now been meeting regularly over lunch break for nearly a year. They are spaces to discuss workplace issues, support networks, and also provide opportunities for improving practical skills. One session, led by a digital skills expert in the group, focused on building LinkedIn profiles and looked at the language needed to powerfully communicate achievements online. Another was on innovative ways to network effectively.
In others, discussions focused on dealing with the daily frustrations and challenges of work. City Hall has worked hard to create an inclusive work environment, tackle unconscious bias and provide a family-friendly work environment – it made Business in the Community/The Times Top 50 Best Places to Work for Women this year and McKenna is aware of how fortunate she is to work in such a supportive environment. (The Human Resources team bought the books for the women to read and are keen to support this peer-to-peer support model.)
While Lean In has resonated with millions of women around the globe, it has also faced criticism from reviewers. One repeated critique has been that the book is limited by a focus on white, educated and wealthy women – women like its’ author Sandberg, the COO of Facebook.
“Like other industries and sectors, women in regional government are frustrated at the slow pace of change”
Yet, the Circles in London’s government tell a different story. The first group was set up as mixed ethnicity. “But then more people got wind and asked to join. It happened that the women wanting to join were black, so I thought it might be interesting to have a BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] circle,” said McKenna, who is herself an Irish mixed-race woman.
In fact, the Circle with only women of colour has been a very positive experience. “For this group, it has been more than a networking session,” said McKenna, who participated in both groups throughout the year.
“Unlike in the mixed group, our first conversation was about developing a manifesto; to support each other, to lean in, to challenge, to empower each other to speak up on issues. I suspect there is a significant BAME pay gap in this building, along with the gender pay gap – you can’t separate the two. Like other industries and sectors, women in regional government are frustrated at the slow pace of change.”
As the sessions progressed, different patterns emerged from the discussions. “Both groups definitely discussed common challenges, 80% of the same issues. But in the BAME one, we talked about other black women that were inspirational to us, about insightful Ted Talks or research articles on diversity, bemoaned the lack of representation at senior level at work – and there is an assumption of a shared lived experience in the BAME circle,” said McKenna. “We’ve all been followed by security guards in shops, and we’ve all wondered when we didn’t get a job if it was because of our ethnicity.”
Another critique of Lean In has been that the focus on individual women’s behaviour somehow masks the real culprits propping up the glass ceiling; structural and societal deficiencies, and shortcomings of corporations and governments.
Of course, the Circles’ most definitive impact has been on those individuals that have directly taken part. One woman found a mentor in the group, five out of the 12 successfully applied for new positions, everyone received useful advice and guidance through the sharing of experiences, and they all felt more empowered to speak up in their jobs.
However, the groups have also begun to have broader impact on life in their organisation. McKenna’s day job looks at diversity and inequality – she is the gender and family policy lead for the organisation – and she has used the Circles as a sounding board for what can be done better.
“The silos in the public sector can sometimes be quite challenging”
“We are about to launch a diversity and inclusion strategy for London, and one section is all about City Hall leading by example, as a responsible employer. We discussed the strategy in the groups and shared our views on what needs to change to help close the gender pay gap – not just in City Hall, but in all sectors across the capital.”
Not only have the groups informed discussion about workplace equality, they have also had other unexpected positive effects on life at City Hall. The participants come from different departments, work under different deputy mayors, and in an ordinary day would rarely have the opportunity to discuss working life with colleagues on other teams.
“The silos in the public sector can sometimes be quite challenging, so it’s been really good from a work perspective to sit around with people from other parts of the organisation and find out what they’re doing. People are introducing each other to colleagues working on similar things, for example,” said McKenna.
While these two small lunch-time London meetups are not going to break the global public sector glass ceiling alone, the idea behind them is now starting to catch on elsewhere.
In the government of Queensland, Australia, there are now seven regular Lean In groups. There is a group in Washington DC. And the Pentagon has even promoted Lean In groups to boost women’s leadership and recruitment in the military and intelligence services, with one of the largest now ongoing in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
As long as public sector progress on gender equality continues at the current pace, there is clearly something powerful and resonant in the idea of Lean In Circles as a way through which women can take immediate, concrete action – action that doesn’t rely on hierarchies, HR departments, political parties, and press offices. The public sector may move slowly, but on gender equality, its female workers will no longer wait.
(Picture credit: Flickr/ Maciek Lulko)