04 September 2013

DCMS is about to have its second permanent secretary called Sue – as Sue Owen is appointed to take over from Jonathan Stephens whose predecessor was Dame Sue Street. But there are some departments where women are more likely to be appointed than others.

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).

Women permanent secretaries since 1997

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.


I think the data here is a little incomplete.

In 1997, Anne Bowtell was perm sec at DSS and remained until her retirement in about April 1999. She was succeeded by Rachel Lomax (who was already perm sec at Wales), which makes DSS/DWP the first department to have a woman followed by a woman.

I am pretty sure that Mavis McDonald mutated from ODPM to Cabinet Office - my recollection is that she followed Brian Bender in about 2001.

thanks for Anne Bowtell.. I will amend the table... had forgotten her. That does put DWP in the women on women category.

neither Mavis nor Brian were in charge of the Cab Office on the way I have counted them... -- I think they were just perm secs in the CO (and I haven't counted perm secs not i/c departments...). The usual was for the Cab sec to run the CO until the Watmore appointment (I think)

It's clearly a matter of judgement, and so very much yours to make, but I am not sure that the 'just' is quite fair to either Mavis or Brian. They were not one among many perm secs and they did the things which you would expect perm secs to do - they chaired the management board, were the departmental accounting officer and so on. I suspect it is true though, as you say, that the cabinet secretary was a bit more hands on then, but I don't think that either Richard Wilson or Andrew Turnbull saw themselves as running the Cabinet Office (other than the cabinet secretariat).

The 2001 Cabinet Office departmental report - http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20020124031428/http://www.cabi... - describes the two roles on page 10, clearly identifying Mavis as Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary. And as a further random example (simply because I can find it easily for reasons which will be obvious from looking at it), Brian was described in the same way when giving evidence to the PAC - http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmpubacc/331/...

That's a clear contrast with the situation a few years later under Gus, when Colin Balmer was described as managing director and pointedly not as permanent secretary http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20060213205513/http://cabineto...

But of course none of this should get in the way of your wider point about how far there still is to go to achieve equality.

Stefan: thanks...

that is very helpful for a piece of work we are about to do on centres. CO organisation is always something of a mystery! and there are differences between permanent secretaries in charge of departments, Wednesday morning meeting attendees, and everyone with the rank of perm sec (women do much worse the broader the category).

Clearly a choice on how to treat .. but perm sec at CO not Cabinet Secretary (and may be good to nuance table to split those out and nuance better).

It is so good to get feedback!

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