Gender balance in the civil service

Whitehall Explained banner

The gender balance in the civil service is an indicator of how well it attracts and retains talent. If women are less likely to be hired or to progress to senior roles, the civil service is not making the most of its talent pool. Research by McKinsey suggests that diverse teams in the private sector perform better and make more effective decisions.

The 2017 Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy claims that ‘when people from diverse backgrounds are involved in creating the public services we all rely on, we get better services that work for everyone’, echoing a similar statement from civil service gender champion, and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Permanent Secretary Melanie Dawes.

Gender balance is not only a matter of basic fairness, but also helps government operate more effectively.

What is the current gender balance of the civil service?

In every year since 2001, more than half of all civil servants have been women. This has increased from 46% in 1991, to 54% in 2018. However, women are still underrepresented in the senior civil service – only 43% of senior civil servants are women, although this has increased from 17% in 1996. 

How does the gender balance vary by seniority in the civil service?

The proportion of women has increased or remained flat at all civil service grades since 2010. Yet the underlying pattern – the higher up you go, the lower the proportion of women – remains. Across the civil service, women make up a higher percentage of junior grades than they do of more senior grades. Women outnumber men among Administrative Officers and Assistants (AO/AA), and Executive Officers (EO); but they are a minority among Senior and Higher Executive Officers (SEO/HEO), Grades 6 and 7, and the Senior Civil Service (SCS). Women at all grades are also more likely than men to be working part time. This is particularly true at the two lowest grades, where there are almost five times as many women working part time as men.

The percentage of women has been increasing in more senior grades (SEO/HEO, Grades 6 and 7, and the SCS), suggesting there is now a pipeline of talent to the top, but there is still a blockage to the very top, in terms of permanent secretaries in charge of Whitehall departments.

Only six departments are run by women:

  • Melanie Dawes at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)
  • Bernadette Kelly at the Department for Transport (DfT)
  • Antonia Romeo at the Department for International Trade (DIT).
  • Claire Moriarty at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU)
  • Sarah Healey at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
  • Tamara Finklestein at the Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (Defra)

This is more than in May 2010, but down from a peak of eight for half a week in March 2011. Unlike the senior civil service as a whole, there has been no upward trend in the percentage of permanent secretaries that are women.

While the permanent secretaries for the Scottish and Welsh Governments are both women - there has never been a female Cabinet Secretary.

Despite this, the UK appears to perform well globally. In the 2016-2017 Women Leaders Index, a study produced by the Global Government Forum and EY, the UK has the fourth highest percentage of women public sector leaders in the G20, only being outperformed by Canada, Australia and South Africa.

How does the gender balance vary by government department?

Women are underrepresented in senior civil service positions at most government departments, reflecting the pattern across the civil service overall.

In only four departments do women make up half or more of the senior civil service – the Department for Education (DfE), the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), MHCLG, and Defra – and just three departments, DfE, DIT and DfT, have a higher percentage of women in the senior civil service than in the department as a whole. The departments with the lowest percentage of women in the senior civil service are the Home Office (HO) with 39%, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with 33%, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with 29%.

Despite having the highest proportion of female employees overall, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) underperforms in terms of female representation in the senior civil service, and has the largest gap between these two measures.

For most departments, the gap between the gender balance in the senior civil service and the gender balance in the department overall has narrowed. This is particularly true of departments like HMRC, MHCLG, and Defra. At DCMS, the percentage of women in the SCS exceeded the percentage in the whole department in 2016 and 2017, but this changed in 2018, coinciding with a significant increase in staff numbers at the department.

Some departments, including DWP and the Cabinet Office have made very little or no progress in increasing the percentage of senior civil positions held by women. 

Most departments follow the pattern of the whole civil service when it comes to looking at each grade, with more women at junior grades than senior grades. This is the case for some large departments with significant operational delivery functions such as the DWP, HO and HMRC, as well as policy-focused departments like the Cabinet Office, FCO and HM Treasury.

What has been done to improve the gender balance of the civil service?

As well as the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, published in October 2017 and setting out a number of steps that the civil service should take to become ‘the most inclusive employer in the UK’, initiatives include:  

  • The Talent Action Plan, which was first published in 2014 as a reaction to the need to ‘ensure that every talented, committed and hard-working person has the opportunity to rise to the top, whatever their background and whoever they are’.
  • Flexible working initiatives such as shared parental leave, flexible job design and e-automated tools which allow remote working. The ‘The Way We Work’ (TW3) initiative seeks to make civil service work ‘smarter’ and culminates in annual awards for the best performing departments.
  • Better networks, such as the Cross Government Women’s Network (CWGN), which allow women in the civil service to share best practice and support.
  • Explicit diversity targets, added to the objectives of all permanent secretaries.
  • The appointment of a civil service gender champion.

Although there has been significant progress towards a balanced civil service, more needs to be done in order to ensure that this balance extends to all grades and departments. Permanent Secretaries must be held accountable for achieving their diversity objectives in order to ensure a more balanced, fair and efficient civil service.

Update date: 
Thursday, April 25, 2019