Male mandarins rule UK

New figures show that women still find it hard to enter Whitehall's top echelons, reports Polly Ghazi
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In 1970, Kate Jenkins, then a junior Whitehall official, was instructed by an offended mandarin to correct her "inappropriate behaviour" after failing to wear her wedding ring to work. Not long after, she was moved to an exciting new job in an Employment minister's private office. "But I only got it," she recalls, "after I'd reassured the Establishment that I wouldn't be rushing home early every night to cook my husband's supper."

Against all the gender odds, Ms Jenkins rose to become one of Britain's most distinguished female public servants. In the late Eighties, as head of the Prime Minister's Efficiency Unit, she oversaw the Next Steps Agency reforms which hived off government work to independent bodies and revolutionised the operation of Whitehall.

But new figures, to be published this week, reveal that such success stories remain rare and that women have made little progress over the past quarter-century in storming the male bastion of the senior civil service.

The survey, by the First Division Association, which represents top civil servants, reveals that only 65 of 600 officials in the top three civil service grades are female. Six departments employ no senior women, including 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

The disclosure that the elite team that advises John Major and his Cabinet is an all-male preserve will embarrass the Prime Minister, who has pledged to recruit women to 15 per cent of top Whitehall jobs by 2000.

But it comes as no surprise to Ms Jenkins, who is now an independent consultant on government (and is currently advising the government of Brazil on how it can restructure its federation).

"I think women have made enormous strides forward at the lower and middle levels of the civil service over the past 20 years, but there is no doubt that at the top there is still a glass ceiling," she told the Independent on Sunday in a rare interview.

"It is ridiculous and infuriating that there are no women in the top three grades in the Cabinet Office or Number 10. But the problem is that the top of the civil service is still dominated by a very traditional male elite which prefers to promote people they feel comfortable with - and that means more men, with similar backgrounds."

The FDA league table reveals that women do best in newly-created government departments such as the Office of Public Services, where five of 16 senior staff are women, and the Government Regional Offices, which has three out of 11.

By contrast, six long-established departments form the bottom of the league table with no senior female staff. Apart from the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street - which have slipped back from last year when they employed one senior woman between them - the culprits include the Northern Ireland Office, Overseas Development Administration, Inland Revenue (which boasts a 60 per cent female workforce), the Treasury Solicitors and the Central Statistical Office.

Two much bigger departments, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education and Employment, make an equally poor showing. Only two of 58 senior MoD staff are women and only two of 35 at Education and Employment.

Overall the survey reveals a slight rise of 4 per cent in the number of women appointed to top jobs since 1992, the year the Government launched a high-profile campaign to recruit more women into public service. Out of 35 permanent secretaries who head government departments only three are women: Ann Bowtell at the Department of Social Security, Valerie Strachan at Customs & Excise and Barbara Mills, Director of Public Prosecutions, who was recruited from outside the civil service.

The FDA fears that even this slow progress may grind to a halt amid signs that the new, cost- obsessed management culture sweeping Whitehall is harming high-flying women's promotion prospects.

Robyn Dasey, its assistant general secretary, said the survey had identified only two women incumbents among 27 posts as head of finance or administration of a government department - jobs now considered a crucial step to the top of the Whitehall career ladder.

"The figures only provide a snapshot of the situation, but they show that women are just not getting the top managerial and financial jobs which are now at such a premium," she said. "There must now be a serious doubt over whether the Government will even sustain current numbers of senior women, never mind reach its 15 per cent target within five years."

Lower down the Whitehall ladder the picture is brighter, with Cabinet Office figures showing that women now hold almost a third of the 71 coveted grade five and grade seven posts in ministerial private offices. Women also now represent 53 per cent of all civil service entrants and, on average, women in middle-ranking grades are being promoted at a younger age than their male rivals.

"Ministers recognise that there is still some way to go," said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman, "but our record is better than the private sector, where only 3 per cent of directors and 4 per cent of board members are women."

But to Kate Jenkins, who now divides her time between the public and private sectors, this is an irrelevant argument.

"The point is that Whitehall likes to pride itself on its equal opportunities record when it really doesn't deserve to," she said. "I work frequently with overseas governments and I always come across many more senior women than we have in Britain."

What is urgently needed, she believes, is for ministers and permanent secretaries to ensure that there are women on the shortlist for every senior post and on every senior selection committee.

Even then, she predicts, it will be another 10 years before a really significant number of women break through the invisible, but firmly restrictive, Whitehall glass ceiling.