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Women and Whitehall : Gender and the Civil Service since 1979

This report looks at the experience of women officials in Whitehall since 1979.

Many accounts of the Civil Service since 1979 have focused on the significant changes that have occurred in its size, shape and organisational structure. Less attention has been paid to the people who worked in Whitehall throughout this period, what it felt like to be a Civil Servant and how this changed over time.

Before 1979 there had only been three women permanent secretaries in the history of the Civil Service, in 1979 there were none. Whitehall gradually became more gender balanced over the next three decades, and in early 2011 half of department-heading permanent secretaries were women. The statistics tell a story about how Whitehall changed in these years, but it is also important to ask how it felt to be a female in Whitehall throughout the period.

In this new report, Women and Whitehall: Gender and the Civil Service since 1979, we look at the experience of women officials in Whitehall and the ways in which the Civil Service has become more gender balanced, both overall and grade-by-grade, since 1979. We interviewed 29 current and former senior officials, from those who joined the Civil Service in 1961 to those who joined in the 2000s. This report draws on their reflections and views, illuminating the lived experience of several generations of Whitehall’s women. It explores their career paths, the initiatives to address gender and other diversity and explores the idea of a Whitehall ‘culture’ and whether it presented an obstacle for women (and some men) to overcome.

This report forms part of the Contemporary History of Whitehall project, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded collaboration between the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Institute for Government. The project explores the ways in which Whitehall changed between 1979 and 2010, and seeks to make the history of Whitehall relevant to today’s policy makers.


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