While women now make up the majority of the UK civil service, they are still underrepresented in senior roles. One woman who has broken the barrier is Hilary Spencer, Director of the Government Equalities Office (GEO), the agency in charge of UK policy on women, sexual orientation and transgender equality.
Apolitical spoke with Hilary and her colleague Carolyn O’Connor, a gender advisor just below senior civil service level in the GEO, about the challenges and opportunities for women in leadership that characterise the UK civil service today.
Women are still underrepresented in senior roles. What is propping up that glass ceiling?
Hilary Spencer (HS): I think the picture is different in different departments. In the Department for Education, for example, more than half of senior civil servants are women. Partly that’s because we reflect our sector: the education sector is predominantly female. But I think it’s also because there’s a strong culture supporting women to succeed: because we’ve had a lot of senior women; we have a lot of job shares; we’ve got people who work flexibly.
In some departments that correspond to typically quite male-dominated sectors – Defence is an obvious one – there are fewer women in more senior positions. Whilst I think they’re trying to do a lot about it, if you look at the recruitment rates early on, not so many women choose to go into Defence in the first place – so they’re fishing from a smaller pool.
“I have very few conversations with men who wonder whether getting to Deputy Director is compatible with family life”
I mentor people at various points, and I also offer one-off career chats to people, including many women – often with small children – who are trying to work out whether they can make the leap to the senior civil service and whether that’s compatible with family life. Interestingly, I have very few conversations with men who wonder whether getting to Deputy Director is compatible with family life. There is still a point when women have children where they tend to take the brunt of the childcare and responsibilities.
That says something about who needs, or feels they need, to compromise – or not. But I always encourage women and say that as you get more senior, in a counterintuitive way you often actually get more control over your time and resources. That has definitely been my experience. The civil service has also recently introduced equalised maternity and paternity pay – so if you’re a civil service couple, you can both have six months off at full pay.
Carolyn O’Connor (CO): Another reason for that departmental difference, I think, is about role models. If you don’t see senior women using the policies that are already on offer, like flexible working and parental leave, you don’t know what you can access. If those are really well communicated to start with there is a huge impact.
Another interesting and challenging point that came out of a survey we did is women’s experience of the menopause at work. Not every woman wants to talk about it or for it to be acknowledged, but some do, and there’s difficulties around how you talk to your line manager about it, how you make your working life comfortable. If you’ve got a male manager, for example, how can they approach you to have conversations about your work flexibility, or what do you need.
HS: We’re still not even very good at talking about periods, are we?
How much focus is there on women in senior leadership in the UK civil service at the moment?
HS: There’s a huge amount going on. The new Diversity and Inclusion Strategy sets out a range of things that the civil service is trying to do to increase diversity of all sorts – so not just women, but also LGBT people, disabled people, BAME people.
A specific example is the returners scheme. The Government Equalities Office (GEO) is funding programs throughout the country to support people who’ve had time out for caring, typically, but not exclusively, women. We have started with the public sector and the civil service one has just launched. In GEO we’ve just had a completely fantastic set of applicants.
“We would be a better organisation and better serve the population if we better reflected it”
There’s a wider question about diversity of thought in the civil service. We would be a better organisation and better serve the population if we better reflected it. We’ve got targets to have 50% of all public appointments being female – we’re on 42% at the minute.
There are also female-focused learning and development programs: Crossing Thresholds is really popular, and there’s a series of talent programs which start from the Fast Stream and go up to Directors General and there’s a lot of work going on to make sure there’s equal gender representation. We still need to make sure that areas like commercial, finance, and technology focus on gender balance.
We need to be vigilant about it, but it’s a really active conversation and commitment across all parts of the civil service. Jeremy Heywood [the head of the UK civil service] really cares about this. In my experience, literally every time he mentions his three priorities for the civil service he talks about better digital skills, better commercial skills, and increasing diversity – so that is visible commitment from the very top of the organisation.
Do you think those learning and development programs are effective?
CO: I was just thinking about my experience of Crossing Thresholds. It was a good space to spend time thinking and network-building, knowing who’s doing what where.
What I found most valuable, though, was learning about other people’s experiences in different departments. GEO is small – fewer than 100 people – so having access to senior people and going along to meetings is sort of par for the course, whereas I think it takes a conscious effort from leaders in other departments to support women to give them those opportunities.
“You can’t just send someone on a course and say, ‘box ticked'”
You can’t just send someone on a course and say, “box ticked”: you still need to work really hard to build the environment and atmosphere, and that has to come right from the very top. Each department has a senior level Gender Champion, and Melanie Dawes is the overall Gender Champion for the whole civil service. As long as it’s right at the top, the atmosphere and informal behaviour then filters down – I think those are the most successful departments.
What advice would you give to a young woman in the civil service today?
HS: Don’t self-limit. The more I talk to women, especially younger women, I see that classic thing where if a man sees 10 things on a job description and he can do six he’ll apply for it anyway, women will wait until they can do nine and a half – or even 11.
“Take a small risk and that will make it easier to take bigger risks”
What I probably say to people most consistently is take a bit more of a risk, put yourself out there just a little bit more. Offer to do the presentation, the speech, the meeting. Actually, it’s not as scary as you think. But take a small risk and that will make it easier to take bigger risks.
CO: Mine would be about taking opportunities, going along to meetings that may not initially seem interesting. Having a constant awareness of where you can find new information, who you can learn from – that networking thing that I think women shy away from.
Hilary, what gender equality issues for Britain more broadly do you now want to focus on as GEO Director?
HS: There are four things that are major priorities. One is closing the gender pay gap. So, that entails economic empowerment, seniority of women, and things like shared parental leave and flexible working. We’ve introduced some world-leading legislation on employers reporting their gender pay gap.
Number two is looking at social norms and what they say about the role of men, women, boys, girls. What is helpful and what isn’t helpful about gender? We’ve set up this partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team to inform our work. The key thing is trying to work out what really works: how do you make it viable for businesses to do the right thing?
The third area is policy progress for LGBT people. That’s linked to the gender norms point – how helpful is that completely binary notion of pink and blue for issues around transgender or sexuality. We just did a massive survey of LGBT people – the biggest in the world with more than 100,000 responses – to give us more of an evidence base. We’ll develop an action plan across government on that in the next few months.
The final thing is making sure that the legal equalities framework – we look after the landmark Equality Act 2010 – remains fit for purpose, which has a Brexit component. We have to be constantly learning, refreshing it, learning from other countries, and making sure it remains current and world-leading.
(Picture credit: Pixabay)