Women in Whitehall: Steps to make the Civil Service more diverse are welcome


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The Independent Online

When Dame Mary Smieton was appointed to become Britain’s first ever female permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Education in 1959 she was paid the same salary as her male predecessor.

But not because the Civil Service was an early adopter of equal pay – rather because officials at that time had yet to work out what a woman’s pay rate should be at this exalted grade. Thankfully, much has changed both in society and the Civil Service since then. But as the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood acknowledges today much more still needs to be done.

While women make up more than 50 per cent of the Civil Service overall that falls to less than a third in the most senior jobs in Whitehall. An independent report published today reveals that less than half of female civil servants believe promotion decisions are made fairly, and only six out of 10 think that Whitehall is committed to diversity at all.

As one female civil servant told the authors of the report: “It’s a hideous male macho culture at the top. I don’t want to join that.”

The plans set out by Sir Jeremy for an end to all-male interview panels and for the routine inclusion of a female candidate for every top job in the Civil Service is to be welcomed.

But, as he and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude acknowledge, the problem is as much one of culture as it is of policy. You can have the best HR manual in the world – but if it is subverted in practice then it is next to useless. And that will require hands-on commitment from both politicians and mandarins over the long term. Sadly this is not the first time the Civil Service has announced a new push to champion diversity. Let’s hope this time the reality lives up to the rhetoric.