Breaking the granite ceiling

20 December 2011

The appointment of Sharon White as DG Public Services at the Treasury marks a notable breakthrough for women at HMT.

Departing Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell likes to claim one of his big achievements was getting to a point where 50% of major government departments were headed by women. But in his previous job as Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, he was much less successful in getting women into the most senior ranks.

Indeed the Treasury’s record on appointing women as DGs and permanent secretaries has been lamentable. While there have been women in charge of Customs (Dame Valerie Strachan in the late 1980s) and HMRC (Dame Lesley Strathie and now Lin Homer) there has been no woman in a mainstream policy DG role in the Treasury since Rachel Lomax left for the Cabinet Office in 1994. And before that the only woman ever to have a role on the Treasury management board (or Policy Coordinating Committee as it was then known) was Dame Anne Mueller whom the Treasury inherited by accident when the Office for Management and Personnel (the rump civil service department) was absorbed by the Treasury in 1987. She was there until 1990. Dame Mary Keegan was on the Board more recently – but as head of the government finance profession rather than in one of the top policy roles.

Sharon is returning now to a Treasury she last worked in 1995. She, like many other women from the Treasury, found it easier to make progress to the top of the civil service in the Brown years outside the Treasury. So she, like other Treasury women – Moira Wallace, Melanie Dawes and Sue Owen – was promoted to DG but not in her home department. This replicated a pattern seen in the Treasury a decade earlier at a level lower when a succession of women was promoted to director outside the department.

Where Gus has left a legacy is in the number of female directors. When I left the Treasury in 1997 there were 3 women directors – exactly the same number as when I joined 19 years earlier (but as the Treasury brief would have put it, progress, as they were a higher proportion). Now 6 out of 18 director positions are held by women. So hopefully we don’t have to wait another 17 years for a woman to join the Treasury policy elite. And maybe, one day in the not too distant future, there will even be a woman Permanent Secretary supporting a woman Chancellor.

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Comments (2)

  1. David Laughrin on 10 January 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Good to see any glass or granite ceilings go, and Whitehall has I am sure benefited from the long term goals to improve gender balance in both public appointments and senior civil service appointments – in both of which I was involved in the 1990s.

    But from the point of view of the Treasury I would equally want to see more movement out of the Treasury and then back again, so more Treasury folk understand what it is like to run delivery programmes in a department. The habit of sending Treasury mandarins out late in their careers to run other departments with no prior relevant experience was never a great idea – as one of them once confided to me.

    So let’s break the traditions of the past in more than one dimension?

  2. Jill Rutter on 10 January 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I agree — there are a number of dimensions on which the Treasury is horribly insular: Oxbridge; time spent outside the Treasury (at least Sharon brings experience of DfID and MOJ as well as No.10 and the World Bank) – but there is noone there who made their career in another department. That sort of traffic is very much one way.

    But this is an improvement. and the Treasury has been quite pioneering on job sharing for example at lower levels.

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