Research identifies measures to support gender balance at senior levels of the civil service

While there have been significant improvements in the last 20 years, women are still under-represented at the highest levels of the civil service.  While just under two-thirds of civil servants are female, only 21 per cent of those at Secretary General  level and  33 per cent of those at Assistant Secretary level are female.

This new research from the ESRI points to a need for greater availability of flexible working arrangements, the importance of addressing high work pressure and a long-hours culture for senior levels which are among the key issues deterring women from seeking senior positions in the Civil Service.

The study draws on a combination of administrative data, reanalysis of the Civil Service Employee Engagement Survey conducted in 2015, in-depth work history interviews with 50 civil servants across 4 Departments and 11 interviews with people working in HR in the Civil Service.

Barriers to promotion

The study highlighted a number of potential barriers to promotion that are likely to impact on women as follows:

  • A crucial issue is the lack of flexible working arrangements at senior grades. Women can therefore be deterred from, or delay, applying for promotion because of the difficulties of balancing work demands with child or elder-care.
  • This pattern is reinforced by the long-hours culture described by many interviewees and by the high levels of work intensity reported in the survey by those at senior grades, especially women.
  • Lack of self-confidence is a potential barrier, with women often feeling that they have to excel in relation to all of the promotion criteria.
  • The lack of a structured handover and a ‘sink or swim’ approach for those newly promoted to senior roles, discourage women from applying for promotion.
  • Promotion chances are seen as being enhanced by having certain kinds of experience. Women at senior levels are more likely than men at the same grade to be involved in service delivery or corporate support, roles that may lack the visibility to enhance promotion chances.

Implications for policy and practice

The Civil Service Renewal Plan launched in 2014 contains a commitment to improve gender balance across the Civil Service. The study points to a number of potential policies and practices that would facilitate this goal. These include:

  • Access to flexible work arrangements at senior levels across Departments.
  • Having a structured period of induction or handover for people moving to more senior roles, reinforced by mentoring and coaching.
  • A systematic approach to career development for all so that civil servants have the chance to develop their skills and competencies across a range of functions.
  • The need to assess the workload and task organisation in senior positions.
  • On-going monitoring of gender differences.

Speaking at an event to mark the publication of the study, Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said:

“We need to ensure that women who wish to progress to the most senior roles in the Civil Service are fully supported and in this regard a range of initiatives are currently being implemented under the Civil Service Renewal Plan.  These include the target of 50/50 gender balance in appointments at senior levels, Leadership Programmes including strong representation from women, unconscious bias training, and coaching and mentoring. In delivering these programmes, we will build on the key findings from this important study today.”

Helen Russell, one of the authors of the report, said

“Greater gender balance in senior positions in the Civil Service is not only important in terms of equity for those employed in the sector but also for public confidence in the decisions made by policymakers”.