IWD 2018 – Government still has a long way to go towards achieving gender equality


New research by The Institute for Government highlights that whilst lower down the ranks there is gender balance, more senior positions go to men.

To mark International Women’s Day, influential think tank the Institute for Government (IfG) has released some new data that shows that the British government still has a long way to go towards achieving gender equality.

Politicians often point to the fact that we have a Prime Minister that is a woman as evidence of the ‘glass ceiling’ being broken and that there are equal opportunities for all in Whitehall – both across the civil service and within government itself.

However, the data released today highlights that there is still plenty of work to do. At the end of last year the government did release an Action Plan to tackle issues around diversity, which states that the government wants 50% of all public appointees to be female and 14% from ethnic minorities (up from 10%), by 2022, bringing representation in line with the resident population in England and Wales.

The Talent Action Plan also introduces a series of new measures to ensure the “Civil Service is among the most female-friendly employers in the country, and the most talented people succeed and reach the top positions, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability”. It has proposals that include:

  • all-male shortlists for senior recruitment and all-male selection panels will only be allowed in exceptional circumstances
  • all departments will nominate board-level diversity champions, with the power to drive change
  • all Permanent Secretaries and Directors-General will mentor one or more junior employees
  • action to provide women with more tailored support before, during and after maternity leave.

New data

However, despite the action plan and improvements in gender disparity in recent years, new research by the IfG highlights how much more there is to do. Researcher Charlotte Baker, notes:

A hundred years after some women gained the right to vote in the UK, great strides have been taken towards a more gender-balanced political system. There are more female MPs than ever before; over 50% of civil servants are female; and there are finally the same number of women as men with the surname ‘Davies’ on the Welsh Affairs Committee.

There are not enough women at the top levels of the civil service, in key Cabinet positions and on select committees.

Some of the key data points include:

  • Women remain underrepresented at senior civil service and permanent secretary level.
  • Women still make up only 32% and 26% of the respective houses.
  • Select committee membership is very male dominated: on six committees female MPs make up less than 20% of membership. The International Development committee has the worst balance, with just a single female member – equivalent to 9% of the committee’s members.
  • 75% of special advisers (spads) are men and eight departments have no female spads at all, as of latest data in December 2017.

Also, the research highlights that some departments have never seen female representation at top ministerial level: there has never been a female Chancellor, Secretary of State for Defence, or Deputy Prime Minister – although Barbara Castle was First Secretary of State (1968–70). Other departments, such as DfID and the Home Office have a better track record.

While 34.5% of ministers attending Cabinet are women, only six women are full members of the Cabinet, making up 26%.


At every grade of the civil service, the percentage of female staff has increased since 2010, which is good news. However, as noted above, as they move up through the grades the female proportion decreases. More needs to be done to reverse this trend.

IfG’s Baker rightly finishes by saying:

Diversity is a matter of fairness. Diverse teams are also more effective and make better decisions: the civil service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy puts forward the business case for diversity.

It is clear that diversity strategies are working in some respects. The growth of female representation in Commons is due to targeted policies. For example, the dramatic increase in the number of female Labour MPs was due to the introduction of all-female shortlists. The Diversity and Inclusion Strategy sets out a number of steps that the civil service is taking to improve its gender balance.

But diversity targets have been set before: in the Talent Action Plan, Permanent Secretary Objectives, and Single Departmental Plans. New objectives need to be implemented and tracked to ensure they are achieved.

Image credit - Via pixabay

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