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Robust Gender Equality Processes, Madeleine Albright and Poor Acoustics – lessons from a ‘Women in Leadership’ session at this year’s Civil Service Live Conference

posted 9 Jul 2012, 05:52 by Ines Wichert   [ updated 10 Jul 2012, 08:31 ]

Last week saw the Civil Service Live conference take place at Olympia conference centre in London. Three days of talks, workshops and supplier exhibitions all aimed at senior civil servants.

I ran a session on Women in Leadership in the main theatre which turned out to be an inadequately parcelled off area at the rear of the main exhibition hall; noise interrupted us from both the  well-behaved Civil Service Live conference at the front as well as the much more boisterous Imbibe conference at the rear. All in all, a great opportunity to practice voice projection and bring together a panel of senior women to discuss career progression in the civil service.

The British civil service is in many respects ahead of the private sector when it comes to making gender diversity a reality. It started setting objectives in 2003 which were renewed in 2008 and then followed up with a target to have 39 percent of senior civil service roles held by women by 2013. Current statistics show that the 30 percent barrier has already been breached and almost a third of the most senior roles in the civil service are held by women.

While the robust processes and structures that are in place have helped to significantly increase the representation of women in senior civil service roles, subtler barriers such as stereotypes, gender role expectations and the wider organisational culture are as much of a problem as in many private sector organisations. A number of senior female civil servants went on record recently to state that while practical changes have certainly helped to create a more diverse workforce, there still is a long way to go and that a difficult change in mindset is required in order to achieve true equality (see comments by Shioban Benita, 12th Feb 2012 in Civil Service World; and Ursula Brennan, 2nd Dec 2011, The Guardian).

And that’s what we focused the panel discussion on: processes versus culture. I had the great fortune to have with me a fabulous panel of both private and public sector female leaders:

  • Andi Keeling, Director of Women’s Markets at RBS
  • Sue Owen, Director General for Strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions
  • Julia Bond, Non-executive Director for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Gillian Crooks, Deputy Director for Change at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs

The panel shared how small changes to processes can make a big difference. For example, including a junior member on a promotion or selection panel ensures that transparency and openness is maintained and that no senior-level backroom deals take place on who is promoted or recruited into senior roles. The panellists encouraged the audience to take advantage of job sharing and mentoring schemes that exist across the civil service and reference was made to a speed-mentoring event that was to take place at the last day of the conference; a concept I hadn’t heard about but a great idea to encourage a good fit between mentors and mentees.

The role of mentors and mentoring developed as one of the main themes during our conversation and Madeleine Albright’s saying that “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women" was mentioned. At least one of the panellists was asked by two women to be their mentor. This was great news and especially exciting for me as I’m currently working on a research report which looks into the issue of mentoring for women – due out towards the end of the year.

The Q&A time revealed, however, that despite the much more robust processes in place for encouraging gender diversity, the everyday experience of women in the civil service is still very similar to those in the private sector. The audience asked questions of the panel that I regularly hear at events in the private sector:

  • I work three-days a week and have been implicitly told that my career is now on hold. What can I do to increase my visibility?
  • How do you manage to create work-life balance? I struggle with that.
  • I have a supervisor who doesn’t support my career advancement. What do you suggest I do?

The panellists’ advice emphasised the importance of repeatedly looking for opportunities, taking risks, building a breadth of experiences, aiming high and moving on if your supervisor doesn’t support your career.

Overall the session was in turns revealing, encouraging and disappointing. While there remains much to be done in a drive towards cultural equality, the Civil Service does provide some inspirations that all kinds of organisations could learn from.