Breaching the divide

Local government spending cuts have refocused attention to the number of women in the public sector but while the number in senior management is slowly increasing there's still a big discrepancy
business woman in red shoes
Women have the power to shape organisations and not just see themselves as fitting into a male space. Photograph: Simon James/Alamy

The Fawcett Society's unprecidented legal challenge to determine whether the chancellor's emergency budget was unlawful because it didn't consider the impact on equality has again highlighted the role – and numbers – of women in the public sector.

The Society said spending cuts risked "rolling back women's equality in the UK by a generation." While cuts to services and benefits that are mainly directed at women are under the spotlight, job losses in the sector will also hit women hard.

But while women make up around 65% of public sector workers – four in 10 working women are in public sector jobs and pay can be higher compared to men in lower bands – there are some parts of the sector where women still make up a minority. According to figures from the Local Government Association, women made up only 21% of council chief executives and only 30% of senior managers last year. This discrepancy is also mirrored in Wales where 73% of women made up the local government workforce in 2009, while only 21% were chief executives.

So while the public sector has traditionally attracted women into frontline roles and other positions, boardroom level has remained a male preserve.
There are exceptions. At Surrey county council, for example, the appointment of Julie Fisher, strategic director for change and efficiency, in February pushed women into the majority on the senior management team. The team now has four women to three men.

A positive experience

"I've had a very positive experience in local authority," says Susie Kemp, Surrey council's assistant chief executive. I think women are breaking through. At Surrey four out of the seven senior management are women. And we're good at what we do, dynamic and strong - it's a fantastic wealth of knowledge. We all bring different experiences and a different wealth of knowledge, so put together – men and women – we're a powerful team.

While Kemp's experience has been a positive one – and percentages creeping up year by year – she admits that issues such as family do play a part in women pursuing the top job. She says she feels more freedom now that her children are older, meaning less guilt about working longer hours.

"I think it's easier now – with regard to childcare and communications – for women to become managers at every level," she says. "But I've had angst over being a working mother. When I started a business in the early 1990s I took my son into the office when he was days old because I thought the whole world would leave me behind. The work life balance is so important and the angst can be immense. At 50 I'm lucky because my children are now at university. I work ridiculous hours and a grumpy husband but it has got easier as I've got older.

Despite the legal action taken by the Fawcett Society, the government has said that it plans to tackle gender inequality in the boardrooms of public bodies with a strategy to boost the numbers of women (hired on merit). The aim is to have at least half of all appointees to public boardrooms to be women by 2015, across organisations including the NHS and government departments. A report is currently being compiled by Lord Davies, a former trade minister, into the barriers that keep women out of the top jobs.

A range of barriers

Some of the barriers for women entering the top job have included working practices and conditions, such as family-friendly policies that could encourage more women. Other issues that have been highlighted include the recruitment process.

In Wales, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said it wanted to see more transparency and creativity in job ads and selection criteria. In addition, it says, a "long working hours culture can prevent women from progressing. Women can be held back by outdated assumptions that commitment to the job is measured in the hours spent at work – a long hours, late hours, rigid hours culture. Rethinking this approach could mean more women progressing within the organisation."

Anecdotal evidence might also suggest that women could also benefit from more encouragement from a line manager or mentor and a more positive view of how they could shape their organisation – and not just see themselves as fitting into a male-orientated space.

"Many women [in my organisation] said they felt uncomfortable with the traditional macho management style that they perceived as still predominating," says Blair McPherson, a local authority director and author of An Elephant in the Room: An Equality and Diversity Manual.

"They noted the focus on budgets and performance rather than partnerships and people. What's interesting about this is that the modern chief executive is an influencer and a shaper, someone who needs good people skills and the ability to make partnerships work as local authority objectives can no longer be achieved by working in isolation. The message would appear to be that organisations need to change their culture in order to attract more women into senior management posts."

In March the Government Equalities Office commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a survey on women's representation in business and government. The survey found that one of the areas where people were most in favour – 64% – of a good balance of women and men in making decisions was local councils. It's time to build on that idea.

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