In many countries – Canada, Australia, the UK, and France included – women now make up the majority of civil service staff. But this dominance is simply not translating into equality. The glass ceiling still very much remains, with women facing many barriers to reaching senior leadership positions.
The issue is receiving lots of attention in many places. In France and Mexico, public sector quotas are now in place, and have led to a jump in women’s senior civil service representation of 5% in just a year.
In Australia, flexible working is being tested across the civil service. Departments in the country – as well as in Singapore and the UK – are also trialling a gender-blind recruitment platform, Applied, to make job descriptions and hiring processes as free from bias as possible.
Mentorship and talent programs targeting women exist in many places. The UK civil service’s Crossing Thresholds is a one-year program whose sole aim is to push more women into senior roles. Each UK civil service department even has its own “gender champion”.
There are, however, challenges to getting a clear global picture of how each of these strategies is working, and seeing what needs to change and what should be shared. Countries structure their public sectors very differently, which makes comparing data difficult.
“Without data, it’s very hard to say you need more women, and it’s hard to see how things are working”
“It sounds very trite, but one of the first real barriers to change is simply the data – simply understanding where women actually are in the government, what positions they hold,” said Gwen K. Young, Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center. “That’s why lots of people measure women heads of state or women in parliament – for those, there is comparable data that exists at a national level.”
“Without data, it’s very hard to say you need more women, and it’s hard to see how things are working if you don’t have the numbers at the table. I believe that the data is at least 75% of the solution,” she said.
“I worked in development for most of my career – it was once we started to have the data on the percentage of young girls that were educated that money started to move within UNICEF and other NGOs to put young girls in primary and secondary school.”
One organisation that has been tracking women in senior civil service roles is Global Government Forum, who, together with EY, have produced a Women Leaders Index each year since 2013. The index tracks G20 and European data, although the aforementioned issues with comparison complicate things. While G20 data measures women in the top five civil service grades, European data only measures the top two grades.
Some trends and an overall picture are, however, pretty clear. Canada has topped G20 rankings for female senior civil service representation every year, with more than 45% of senior civil service roles taken by women. While it has few initiatives targeted specifically at gender equality in the civil service, Canada was an early adopter of equal rights and anti-discrimination policies in the second half of the twentieth century. It also has supportive labour market policies, such as a year’s paid parental leave that can be split equally between parents.
But more analysis and data are needed to really find out why.
“One question that is really burning in my mind is whether family leave and the burden of care really is the only thing holding women in government back,” said Young. “My guess is it’s not just that: you could change all of that, and everything may not change. I’d like to really understand the role of other workplace policies, of unconscious bias, and of culture.”
The European data offers unexpected insights. Many Baltic and Eastern European states perform much better than their G20 counterparts: in Slovenia, for example, women make up 57% of the civil service.
But raw rankings may present a warped picture. As Global Government Forum’s report points out, in some of the very small EU states that have tiny civil services, one man leaving or one woman getting promoted can lead to a dramatic change in the gender equality ratio of the top two tiers. With such small sample sizes, a data-based ranking may not provide a fair picture.
The report also puts forward some other possible reasons why Slovenia and the Baltics are doing so well. According to one analyst, many Baltic nations copied the gender equal governance models of Sweden and Finland to secure accession to and funding from the EU.
Juha Sarkio of Finland’s Finance Ministry argues that in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, public sector pay fell so far behind the private sector that many men left the civil service and its poor rewards, leaving women in charge.
“Once you have the data, the second really critical thing is analysis”
“Once you have the data, the second really critical thing is analysis: how did a country get to where it got, and why. Women hold so much power in Slovenia. Why is that really?” said Young.
Young’s Wilson Centre and the UN’s Gender Equality in Public Administration initiative have now released their own index tracking women’s power, positions, and pathways across every branch of government. The index ranks countries on a wide array of measures, including women’s power in the judiciary, female ambassadors and the number of women on local councils, in parliament and in the senior civil service.
The index will be a springboard for analysis, case studies, and insight into what’s working and what should be spread and shared internationally.
“We’re part of this open data movement that everyone thinks is great – but it’s only great if it’s developing a solution”
“What’s really important is what you do with the data. We’re part of this open data movement that everyone thinks is great – but it’s only great if it’s developing a solution, or it’s developing the tools,” said Young. “The goal is not to have 3,000 indicators just for the sake of it, it is to have enough of a framework that we can start saying if you move this – if you change family leave policy, for example – will women rise up more in leadership positions, yes or no?”
“Success for this project really looks like a government that changes its practices in recruitment, hiring, and culture to be more inclusive to women and minority groups. We want commitment not just from a Justin Trudeau, but across all agencies of the government to get women up into leadership positions.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/WOC in Tech)