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Growing Gender Diversity : Our journey in BIS - guest blog from Martin Donnelly

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders, Diversity and inclusion

The British Civil Service is powered by women, who make up 53% of the workforce. But they take only 38% of leadership roles - greater female representation than on FTSE 100 Boards or in the Judiciary, but still not enough. Public service must reflect modern Britain and harness everyone’s talents, as a matter of effectiveness as well as fairness.

Martin Donnelly with the Senior Women in BIS

Gender imbalance has been a long standing frustration, and we are committed to ending it.

In November, BIS announced that 50% of our senior leaders were women for the first time. We have women working part-time at all levels, eighty five senior women executives, and successful job shares leading key policy areas. I wanted to share the story of our efforts to make gender diversity a reality. Not because I think we’ve cracked it, but because embracing diversity is a challenge we are all grappling with. We are grappling with it not because we should, but because we must.

In BIS, we started by focusing on the organisation’s behaviours and values. Our mission is to connect people with prosperity across the country. How we do this matters as much as what we do. Each of our staff has to take responsibility for their role in facilitating economic growth. The world is changing fast, and we have to become as effective in social media and digital delivery as we are with traditional stakeholders and Parliament.

Clarity on our BIS values was a big step. But it wasn’t enough to make the Department a better place to work, or an environment where women could really thrive. We needed to internalise the culture we sought to create, not leave it as slogans in the entrance hall. We needed to build a culture of real trust and less hierarchy, to get to the insights about what needed to change.

We started off by running a series of informal talks from successful women inside and outside BIS (and the occasional man, including me) called 'Have your cake and eat it'. We explored how these leaders had balanced work, family and other responsibilities, and, all too often, the unnecessary difficulties they had been forced to overcome by unsympathetic or complacent management. These talks boosted confidence and provided role models for our emerging women leaders. They underscored the need for an organisation which was not prepared to tolerate unacceptable behaviours when it came to diversity issues, and did not have a ‘right’ model for its leaders.

But we needed to do more, and on a more practical level. I began meeting small groups of women across the department informally. I talked about my own family experience, including a spell as a single parent with three young children, and how I’d had to fight to negotiate space in my career to be the father I wanted to be as I rose through the ranks. Telling my own story even in a neutral, safe space was an effort for me. I had to challenge my own assumptions about leadership meaning never showing weakness or vulnerability. But it encouraged the women I spoke with to share their own personal and sometimes deeply intimate concerns. I learned a lot more about issues which I thought I had understood. It was humbling to learn how many people manage complex and sometimes heartrending personal circumstances while being committed to their work at BIS.

But the most profound lesson I took away was not simply that we needed to make practical changes to better support women, but that I was running an organisation in which men and women alike did not always feel they had the space to share what was relevant about their lives with colleagues. This was impeding their ability to do their day jobs, and eroding their confidence in seeking promotion – and particularly affected women. This, of course, was a basic leadership challenge, not just for me but for all of us on the senior team. We had to show that we were people with our own lives, personalities and challenges. We needed to be more open as a team in order to forge an environment where we and our staff connected with each other with trust and honesty. Only then could we really ensure that the diverse personal circumstances of staff would be taken into account, because only then would we know about them.

These insights have helped us to make practical changes to the way we do things: keeping a closer watch on our female talent pipeline; finding supportive buddies for our staff balancing complex jobs and part-time hours; and rolling out unconscious bias training for all our senior managers. Having heard first-hand about the challenges of resuming a career after having children, we now offer all women in leadership roles returning from maternity (or other leave) a guaranteed 6-month job for however many days they want, which provides some with the “bridge” they needed between time off and the next big job, and helps us hang on to a lot of very talented staff.

Moving into this space is a challenge for BIS and indeed the whole Civil Service, an organisation whose culture is built on rigorous policy analysis and delivery, and a certain personal detachment derived from our place advising the government of the day, rather than bringing our own views into the workplace. To shift this culture, one of our tactics has been to build our ability to tell stories, to connect on a personal and emotional level as well intellectually. We have good stories to tell of the difference we make. And we have great people to tell them, each in their individual ways.

We are not anywhere near the end of the process. We still have a lot to learn and more trust to build. But my senior team and I share a sense that we are going in the right direction, that our conspiracy to permanently change the culture of BIS to become more open, confident and personal is paying off. Talented people who share our approach want to work with us, knowing no one becomes a senior manager at BIS without a clear commitment to extending diversity and building supportive teams. And across Whitehall, things are changing too. In 1996, just 17% of the UK’s most senior Civil Servants were women. That proportion has more than doubled. We still have some way to go, but we are getting there.

With real diversity comes a more resilient and effective organisation, a place people can be themselves. We do a better job together.

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  1. Comment by HMRC Pete posted on

    Hypothetically, what happens in five years time when you suddenly realise that 65% of senior leaders in the department are women? Do you then introduce talent pipelines for men? Do you then get out there and talk to men about what support they need in order to compete with all the advantaged women?

  2. Comment by Clare posted on

    I read this article more positively that some of those that have commented. But what strikes me is that it is carer friendly working policies that make the difference for employees, men or women- and the civil service on the whole can lead the way in this. For me, as a lone parent of a young child in a demanding full-time G6 role, achieving any kind of balance between having a fulfilling career and caring for my child is only possible because I can work flexibly and remotely, with IT that allows this and an acceptance by my line manager that I don't have to be in the office everyday to achieve my outcomes. But I am cautious about making a lateral move to develop my career further until my child is much older because my next line manager may not be so supportive, and in Whitehall where I work, the likely demands of a role with more direct contact with Ministers work against having caring responsibilities that mean having to leave the office at a certain time everyday. I think there is a way to go before the diversity of family / caring situations is fully reflected in attitiudes of those that inform working policies and culture, and I think in practice this affects more women than men.

  3. Comment by Peter posted on

    "Public service must reflect modern Britain and harness everyone’s talents, as a matter of effectiveness as well as fairness."

    Not true. We surely want only the most-effective people in the CS, regardless of gender. If a manager was recruiting a new team of 10 people, and the 10 best applicants were women, he should recruit them all. Only a very unintelligent person would say "Hang on - this new team won't reflect modern Britain if I recruit the 10 best applicants, and will therefore be less effective and less fair."

    This argument is simplistic and facile. Do you think the England football team would be "more effective" (i.e. would win more games) if it was made up of 50% women? Of course not. It just so happens that the 11 best footballers eligible to play for England are all men. Or perhaps you would think it was somehow "a good thing" if it was made up of 50% women, even if that made the team lose more games, because that would make the team "more fair"?

    What troubles me is that this assumption, which is completely unfounded, then underpins your entire approach. Let me give you a few examples:

    "I began meeting small groups of women across the department informally..."

    Very good, but why only women? Why assume that there are no men who also have "personal and sometimes deeply intimate concerns"?

    "...keeping a closer watch on our female talent pipeline..."

    You have a special "talent pipeline" for women? Why? Do you have one for men too? Since when was segregation a good thing?

    "...we now offer all women in leadership roles returning from maternity (or other leave) a guaranteed 6-month job for however many days they want..."

    Presumably the men in leadership roles are not offered the same. Is this you assume that no man could ever possibly benefit from such an offer? What basis is there for such an assumption?

    "In 1996, just 17% of the UK’s most senior Civil Servants were women. That proportion has more than doubled. We still have some way to go, but we are getting there."

    Getting where? Why has increasing this metric become a target? Are we also going to make sure that the CS leadership reflects the population of the UK in terms of shoe size, hair colour, nose length, voice pitch, etc. etc. etc.?

    Let me be clear - if women are being discriminated against, then something needs to be done about that, and your mandatory unconscious bias training is a good thing to do. But it seems to be that what you are really aiming for is not equality of opportunity (a good aim) but equality of outcome (a shortsighted and illogical aim). If women are not getting equal opportunities, then fix that. But don't assume that just because you aren't seeing equal outcomes, there is a problem.

  4. Comment by Billy d posted on

    .......Meanwhile very few working class people (including women) are able to access fast track positions. Therein lies another story that BIS senior managers seem unable to grasp. Gender diversity does not guarantee real equality if it merely focuses more power in the hands of middle class parents.

  5. Comment by Rachel Race posted on

    Lots of good stuff here. Thank you.

    "BIS now offers all women in leadership roles returning from maternity (or other leave) a guaranteed 6-month job for however many days they want."

    Are there plans for this to be extended to men in leadership roles returning from leave, particularly after rights to Shared Parental Leave come into force next year?

    My view is that we should seek to foster a culture in which caring for children is seen as a parents' issue, rather than as a women's issue.

    • Replies to Rachel Race>

      Comment by Jennifer posted on

      This is exactly what I was thinking! I really appreciate the civil service being (in many cases - though I realise not all) genuinely open to flexible working. But woman does not always mean mother and in turn that does not always mean part time worker. I recognise that it is still more common for women to be part time, but it would be helpful to avoid policy that assumes this is always the case. When we see parental responsibility as the issue, we'll be nearer to equality - for both men and women.

  6. Comment by Liz Johns posted on

    I found this really motivational, I think in part because you have shared your own personal experience as a parent which to me shows strength in leadership not weakness - thank you

  7. Comment by Shauna Vulliamy posted on

    Really enjoyed reading this, and about the hard work you've undertaken to embrace gender diversity and make it part of your culture.

  8. Comment by Jonathan Sharrock, HS2 Director, DfT posted on

    An excellent blog by Martin which should inspire us all to interpret Staff Survey results properly. It reminds us how true engagement with staff only comes from properly understanding their perspective on the challenges that we face, and how inspirational proper innovation can be.

  9. Comment by Doug Watkins, HR Director, BIS posted on

    Great blog Martin. Makes us all proud to be part of the success that is BIS! Diversity in the true sense of the word.
    I think our gender work has been a true success. As you say, no room for us to be complacent and still more to do on other areas of diversity - but we have a real sense of progress and optimism that even more is possible.
    Doug Watkins, HR Director, BIS

    • Replies to Doug Watkins, HR Director, BIS>

      Comment by Peter posted on

      "Diversity in the true sense of the word."

      To my mind, the only important kind of diversity has to do with diversity of "thought" and "approach to life". This is the "true sense" of diversity and the only kind worth worrying about.

      The fact that two people are of different gender has nothing to do with this. We all know (don't we?) that you can have a management team which is 50% women but they all think the same. This type of "diversity" is absolutely worthless because it's a diversity only of chromosomal makeup and nothing more.

      It's an undeniable fact that people of the same gender can be just as "diverse" from each other as people of opposite genders. The same is true of ethnicity. You can focus on these types of diversity if you want, but don't expect anyone who has really thought about this issue to go along with it!