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Civil servants: 'Men are twice as likely to occupy senior positions as women'

Achieving gender equity has to be underpinned by a greater openness to real flexibility across grades and departments, writes Selina McCoy.

Selina McCoy ESRI

A LACK OF women in leadership roles is a common feature of occupations in the public and private sector. While there has been a significant increase in the number of women in management positions over recent decades, women remain under-represented at the top.

Just under two-thirds of civil servants are female, but just one-fifth of those at Secretary General level and one-third of those at Assistant Secretary level are female.

A large scale mixed-methods study, undertaken at the ESRI, finds that men are actually twice as likely to occupy senior positions, as women with the same level of qualifications and length of service. Women are less likely to apply for promotion to senior positions, and the research tells us why.

Men do better

Women are less likely to occupy the types of roles and gain the types of work experience that are seen as key to promotion. Engaging in policy-type work, interacting with Ministers and stakeholders and getting the opportunity to ‘act up’ in more senior roles are all seen as important in promotion success, and men do better in accessing these sorts of experiences.

Opportunities to engage in flexible work arrangements also decline as people progress in the civil service, so that by Principal Officer grade very few can work part-time, participate in a shorter working year or other flexible work arrangements. Again this has a strong impact on the decision-making of women, in particular.

Civil servants also spoke about the ‘long-hours culture’ and high levels of work intensity at senior levels, impacting particularly on civil servants with childcare or eldercare responsibilities.

Many senior managers reported working 12 to 14 hours per day, working at weekends and in the evenings, and in some cases travel was also an important aspect of their job.

Openness to real flexibility

Achieving gender equity has to be underpinned by a greater openness to real flexibility across grades and departments. This could be done by restructuring jobs not as ‘empty places’ but as sets of tasks and functions that could be configured differently across different members of staff.

Self-confidence also emerged as important in decisions to apply for promotion, women often feeling that they have to excel in all of the promotion criteria before they will take the plunge. As a result women often postpone applying for promotion until they are well over the threshold. Delaying applying has clear implications for short- and long-term career prospects.

Finally, the research also shows a lack of handover when people successfully progress in the civil service. A ‘sink or swim’ approach often applies for those who were newly promoted to senior roles.

This lack of support, as people transition between roles and positions, impacts on decision-making, and women in particular are less likely to apply for promotion particularly if it is outside their own area of expertise or department. The need for more structured induction systems is central, alongside a greater use of mentoring or coaching.

Under the Civil Service Renewal Plan, there is now a target of 50/50 gender balance in senior appointments. Improving gender balance in senior positions is not only important in terms of equity, but also promotes public confidence in the decisions of policy makers.

Selina McCoy is Associate Professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute. 

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Selina McCoy  / ESRI

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