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Turning on the TAP

Will the government's new diversity action plan deliver the wanted pipeline of female talent?

The long-awaited 'talent action plan' on women in the civil service was published today. The comments from staff make it clear it faces an uphill struggle.

“I would not want to join the culture. It’s really insidious and I have witnessed too many women fail. Women I have admired, women who have succeeded previously. All torn apart, all gone. It’s a hideous male macho culture at the top with favourites and deals in smoke filled rooms. It’s the first time in 25 years I have seen it this bad”. Not many organisations would be open and self-critical enough to publish this sort of comment from their staff. The civil service leadership and Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, should get credit for that openness. But they also need to take responsibility for what has happened – the survey underpinning the plan contains a number of comments that the prevailing Civil Service culture is inimical to women (or anyone different) succeeding – and that there has not just been stalling, but a reversal of progress over the last four years. These are issues the Institute has drawn attention to in earlier blogs, and they have also been debated in our Women Leaders events. So what happens next? The plan makes proposals for tackling issues around flexible working, maternity and shared parental leave – to reduce the extent to which demands of family place a barrier on (some) women (and some men) progressing. That is necessary, but far from sufficient. There are wider issues to be tackled. Only some 40% of SCS women think that the current promotion system is fair – as opposed to circa 55% of men. So it is right that the plan puts emphasis on making selection processes appear fairer – a  strong presumption against all-male shortlists and all-male panels combined with the unconscious bias training that a number of our panellists said they found helpful. The civil service may even move away from the time-honoured panel interview. But shortlists and panels are part of the story – there is no point (and quite a lot of harm) in being on a shortlist to make up numbers – and serially coming second is an emotionally damaging experience. Moreover, the comments made in the research reflect the view that, too often, panels are simply there to rubber stamp a decision that has already been made – certainly this was my experience in applying for DG jobs – people could usually already tell you who was “lined up” for the job. The key first litmus test is whether the pattern of appointments changes – and that may mean moving away from job by job appointments to a more managed system. But the second thing that needs to change is the support for women who make it through. Interestingly women cared much more about working in a supportive environment - 77% of women thought that “senior leaders are supportive and role model our values” was important in making leadership attractive against 64% of men, and 65% wanted a more collaborative culture versus 49% of men. The high profile departures of women permanent secretaries – promoted but then moving on or out shortly afterwards contributed to the view that this was not a culture conducive to women succeeding. Bizarrely, Civil Service diversity champion and FCO Permanent Secretary Sir Simon Fraser revealed at our women leaders event that no one had carried out exit interviews to ask what could have been done differently. This points to the need for a more radical culture change. It means reassessing the nature of the workplace – and the way work is organised. But it also means that the ultimate customers for much civil service work also need to think about the way in which they influence the system. Although the plan has the backing of Francis Maude, it is silent on the role of ministers in supporting and promoting an atmosphere more conducive to flexible working and appreciating different styles of leadership. Ministers need to recognise the potential conflict with other policies – for example the demand that the first civil service CEO  “will need to be able to demonstrate that he or she has had a successful career in the private sector working in one or more large, complex, multi-stakeholder organisation with a  track record of delivering transformational change and cost reduction” automatically means that the field will be predominantly male as the private sector lags the civil service significantly on advancing female talent. The real test of whether anything changes will lie less in the immediate change in numbers than in whether the people working in the civil service feel that they are working in an environment that values diversity, supports women (and other underrepresented groups) to succeed – and really does promote on merit. Now we have a baseline, those in charge need to go back and ask on a regular basis.

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