Another first for gender equality this week: with news that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had appointed Leslie Evans as Scotland’s top civil servant – the first time a woman has held this position. Guest genderpol blogger Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh reflects on this break through and the barriers that remain for women in public service.
Leslie Evans has been appointed Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Government. The office dates back to 1885 when the Scottish Office came into being (though had its antecedents dating back further). She is the nineteenth person to hold the post and the first women. That the new head of the Scottish civil service is a woman has drawn most attention.
While much attention and research focuses on the number of MPs, MSPs and councillors, there has been far less on the opportunities for women in the civil and public services. A year ago, research on Whitehall by the Hay Group concluded that the culture and leadership climate in the civil service prevented talented women from progressing into more senior roles’. This constraint on the talent pool was a major impediment in performance. The research concluded that women who entered the service had the qualities and capabilities required to reach the top but raised questions about the conditions that inhibited this talent from rising. The conclusion of the report (Women in Whitehall: Culture, Leadership, Talent) warned that if these matters were not addressed then the civil service would no longer be ‘fit for purpose’.
While stated policy was broadly positive, there were significant problems when it came to how this was translated into practice and particularly people’s perception of the reality – the rhetoric was not believed when it came to policy and promotions and what is valued. Many talented women simply opt out. The challenge was presented diagrammatically.
There is considerable variation across the civil service with the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice and Foreign and Commonwealth Office amongst the poorest. The Department for Education was the only department in Whitehall in which the number of women senior civil servants exceeded men. The Scottish Government’s record has been better probably reflecting the nature of its responsibilities.
One response has been to scrap all-male shortlists, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and emphasise a more inclusive leadership climate. The greater effort to ensure more women are appointed to public bodies and boards is thought to contribute to a changing climate. Having diversity champions and mentoring and providing support for women before, during and after maternity leave, and training to remove unintended bias in interviews are all being encouraged.
The current climate is unlikely to have been decisive in Leslie Evans’ appointment but this appointment highlights the loss of talent in the career progression of the civil service. We are still some way from the day when the sex of a senior official is deemed the most notable factor in an appointment