15 July 2015

The latest of our women leaders’ series, sponsored by Ernst and Young saw the most senior civil servant in Canada, Janice Charette, in conversation with Communities and Local Government Permanent Secretary, Melanie Dawes. The event brought out issues similar to our June event on Women and Whitehall and explored some of the themes that form part of our forthcoming paper on the history of women in Whitehall.

Janice Charette is Canada’s Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, the most senior Canadian public official and already the second woman to hold that role. In conversation with Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government and Diversity Champion, Charette talked about the role of women in Canadian public services, efforts to increase diversity and the similarities and differences to gender diversity in the UK’s Civil Service.

Embracing diversity

The comparable headline statistics make for an interesting starting point. In Canada, 55% of all core federal public servants, the equivalent of our Civil Service, are women compared to 53.3% in the UK. Canada’s executive ranks – the top tiers – stood at 40%, up from only 5% in 1983 (Charette joined in 1984). In the UK, grades 1-3 (roughly, but not entirely the equivalent of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) today) were 4.5% female in 1983, compared to 37.9% in the SCS in 2015. But it is at the top that the differences show. In Canada, the highest rank of deputy Minister – those who head or are second in command in a department and the equivalent of our permanent secretaries – stands at 41% female. In the UK, it depends what you count – some look only at those heading departments, which provides a higher number – but of all Whitehall based officials with the rank of permanent secretary, only 20% are women. And the UK is still waiting for its first female Cabinet Secretary.

So what might explain the difference? First, as Charette put it, Canada’s labour force participation numbers for women are one of the highest in the OECD – so perhaps it was reflective of a wider culture of representation of women in the workforce. Secondly, she pointed out that diversity on many fronts was integral to Canada – whether about representation of first nations or Francophones – and seen as a source of strength.

Canadians looked at diversity positively – when thinking about programmes and policy for such a population you needed a public service that reflects society. This also meant the idea of diversity went much broader than representativeness; it was also about experience, regional background, vocational background, family structure.

Following the trailblazers

As for her own experience, Charette saw herself as part of a generation who benefited from the trailblazers who had gone before and for whom it had been tougher. She said she never thought of herself as a woman in public service, but rather as a public servant: ‘I didn’t have to think about being a woman because others had done it for me.’

Dawes asked how Charette had approached her career and whether she noticed herself approaching a job application in a different way to male colleagues. Charette said she never thought ‘that’s not a job a woman can do’, she had not approached her career with a particular goal in mind. She had taken on risky roles, ones that ‘run towards fires as opposed to away from them’, to expand her skills and what she could do. Each step up the ladder – including the final one – was in some ways unexpected; she still sat at her desk in the Clerk’s office and thought ‘Oh my!’ But she developed confidence in each role as she realised she was good at it.

Unblocking the pipeline

They also moved on to talking about initiatives in both Canada and the UK to help women move up the ladder. Data was important to be able to see what was happening through the pipeline. In Canada, at every Cabinet meeting league tables are used by the Prime Minister to hold ministers to account for their performance on appointment diversity, not as quotas but just to show which departments ranked lowest. ‘It’s amazing actually, the effect that that has, when you draw attention to that every month and you are in a leadership position,’ said Dawes. She also talked about the value of good HR: performance management that focused on helping individuals get the best out of themselves would, by extension, help women. But diversity also had to be seen as core business, not just a conversation with women for women.

Both Dawes and Charette discussed the importance of diversity on panels for recruitment and appointment. For Dawes, the situation has changed massively since she joined the Treasury in the early 1990s. Then, there was no focus on management and leadership; now it is almost impossible to get to a Director-General post without a focus on leadership, management skills and even psychometric evaluation. She talked about the importance of staff panels – involving a group of staff in the interview process. For her it was an ‘amazing’ kind of feedback about how you really come across in the department.

Finally, Charette talked about the value of another kind of diversity – a more permeable organisation where people could come and in go out of public service and develop broader skills and experience, something the UK has also attempted to improve upon in the last 20 years. But, as Charette herself found, it can be a challenge. She was used to consulting colleagues widely on any issue and took the same approach in a stint at a private sector consultancy. The first time she got her new colleagues together for a meeting they happily participated, only to then bill all of their time to her timesheets.