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UK Politics

All-male interview panels scrapped as Whitehall’s ‘macho culture' is tackled

The long-standing gender imbalance at the top of the civil service that has proved remarkably resistant to change

Female civil servants must no longer be interviewed for promotion only by men, the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, will announce today, as part of attempts to tackle Whitehall’s “male macho” leadership culture.

A new report reveals that less than half of female civil servants questioned believe promotion decisions are made fairly, while only six out of 10 think Whitehall is committed to diversity at all. Male civil servants were far more likely than their female colleagues to think the system is fair.

In response to the report’s findings, Sir Jeremy will announce that all-male interview panels will be effectively banned – and shortlists of candidates for senior civil service jobs should include at least one woman.

High-flying civil servants who take time out to have a family will also receive extra support when they return to work and be encouraged to take on more demanding roles that are likely to lead to further promotion.

The package of measures is designed to tackle a long-standing gender imbalance at the top of the civil service that has proved remarkably resistant to change.

While women account for more than half of all civil servants in Britain, they make up less than 40 per cent of the senior civil service and just a third of director or permanent secretary posts. 

An independent report for the Government, to be published today, has found widespread dissatisfaction among female civil servants about the way promotions are dealt with and the macho culture at the top of Whitehall.

One woman told the authors of the report she had “witnessed too many women fail” in senior civil service jobs. 

“It’s a hideous male macho culture at the top,” she said. “It’s the first time in 25 years I have seen it this bad. I don’t want to join that.”

Another said: “Things have changed over the last five years. The rise of certain individuals, male, white and hugely opinionated, who do not like anyone questioning them, challenging them has put us back to the dark ages.”

Sir Jeremy said that while the civil service had strong diversity policies, he was concerned they might not always be observed in practice.

“When you look at our policies they are world class. But the issue is that we don’t always follow them and the culture [of the civil service] does not always reflect them,” he said. “The big challenge is to ensure that the reality reflects the rhetoric and the policy.”

The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, said that currently civil servants did not always believe promotion was on merit and that women who had been away on maternity leave were sometimes not seen as having “served their time”.

“We want to make the culture of the civil service much more open, inclusive and meritocratic,” he said. “Some people who come in tend to say it feels too clubby and exclusive.”

Mr Maude and Sir Jeremy added that they were also interested over the long term in abolishing the principle of interview boards altogether because they might disadvantage women who were less likely to push themselves forward.

“It’s exactly the kind of thing where unconsciously a particular methodology maybe militating against one group rather than another,” said Sir Jeremy. “Some people are just not as good in a panel setting than they are one-on-one.” 

Nadine Smith, director of communications at the Institute for Government, which is leading an event series on women leaders in the civil service, said there was an awful lot of work that needed to be done to improve the situation.

“Women tell us that are reluctant to even apply for senior jobs in the civil service. Many positions are still advertised as full time, few are as flexible as they could be and ministers, political staff and Whitehall leaders still expect senior civil servants to be in the office round the clock,” she said.

Civil service jobs: A cut-throat approach

“I did apply for a job at a senior grade and was told afterwards that I did not get an interview because I would have performed better than preferred candidate – it was his turn for promotion...” - female civil servant

“There is the stated way that promotions are made (competence based) and the way that they are really made (personal recommendation and cronyism). Sometimes the two overlap but often the latter approach is used but made to look like the former. And I’m speaking as someone who has benefited from the system.” - male civil servant

“The culture in the SCS is very cut-throat and underhand. It is not open and truthful. Honest conversations are not had… It’s too risky to be truthful. This has created a culture where things aren’t questioned and a challenge can get you into trouble.” - female civil servant