It is hardly a surprise that the new appointee to DCMS is a woman – after almost two years at the top of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood had failed to promote a single woman to permanent secretary – and had faced a mini-exodus of their predecessor’s much trumpeted appointees. DCMS is also Whitehall’s smallest department, with a woman Secretary of State and responsibility for equalities.
We looked at the appointment of women permanent secretaries to run departments since 1997 (thus omitting Richard Crossman’s famous nemesis, Dame Evelyn Sharp at the then Ministry for Housing and Local Government).
What emerges is that there are some departments where a woman permanent secretary now represents business as usual: the most senior position in Wales, DCMS, Defra and – perhaps counterintuitively given the traditional male dominance of transport industries – the Department for Transport. Each of these has had two women permanent secretaries – and in the case of Defra a woman was appointed to take over from a woman. Top of the list is HMRC – where Lin Homer succeeded Dame Lesley Strathie after her early death – and where Dame Valerie Strachan was chair of the one of its predecessor departments – HM Customs and Excise.
As we go down the list there are a number of departments which have had one woman permanent secretary – DWP, Home Office, CLG (its predecessor, John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was run by Dame Mavis Macdonald), DECC, Health, MoD, MoJ and DfID. Of these, only Health and Justice still have women in charge.
No woman has yet been in charge of the elite departments at the centre of government: the Treasury, the FCO, and the Cabinet Office. The top position in Scotland has also been the preserve of men (unlike Wales) and BIS had a brief period with a female acting permanent secretary.
Even these figures tend to overstate the extent of female influence at the top of Whitehall:
•A few women have been in charge of a number of departments – Rachel Lomax moved from Wales to Social Security (DWP’s predecessor) to Transport, Dame Ursula Brennan moved from Defence to Justice, and Lin Homer from Transport to HMRC. In terms of months in post, they served well less than the expected four years, as did Dame Helen Ghosh at the Home Office.
•No women have come close to being in the running for the top post of Cabinet Secretary – or held one of the top (permanent secretary level) posts at the Treasury or at the FCO – no woman has ever been our Ambassador to Washington, Paris or Berlin – or less glamorously, but more critically, headed the UKrep in Brussels.
But at least Sue’s appointment will be a signal to some of the women in Whitehall that there is a possible route to the top – and hopefully soon the pipeline of upcoming female talent will start flowing.