Women in public policy


By Karen Johnston, Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Portsmouth

There is persistent under-representation of women in public administration and across the globe. While it can be argued that central and Eastern Europe have relatively high rates of female representation in public administration institutions, under representation of women in leadership or senior decision making positions still remains high. For example, Ukraine may have 75% representation of women within the ranks of its public administration, but only 13% of women are represented in senior leadership levels. 

However, it must be recognised that other countries, such as South Africa and Botswana, are approaching parity in terms of overall representation of women in leadership positions. In the case of South Africa, this is largely due to affirmative action policies and, in Botswana, investment in education and public administration. In other places like the Middle East, the role of women in paid employment is restricted or even prohibited due to sociocultural and religious norms.

What are the explanations for lack of female representation in senior leadership levels? The lack of female representation in liberal democracies such as the UK, Belgium, France, can be partly explained by a number of factors. In many of these countries there is a significant pay differential between public and private sectors. Other factors which affect female paid employment and labour market participation are the relatively high level of childcare costs; poor policy implementation of equality policy and extant masculine organisational cultures reinforced by Anglo-Saxon public administration reforms of New Public Management.

The lack of female representation in public administrations reveals vertical and horizontal occupational gender segregation. Vertical occupational gender segregation is often referred to as ‘glass ceilings’, where women struggle to reach leadership and senior decision-making positions. In many public bureaucracies, women tend to be concentrated in lower-level and lower-paid positions within the public sector hierarchy with paucity in career trajectories to the upper echelons. 

Horizontal occupational gender segregation is when women are concentrated in specific sectors or professions of public administrations, such as education and health sectors. This is referred to as ‘glass walls’, with women stereotypically associated with feminine professions such as caring roles. There is also intra-professional gender segregation. For example, in the medical profession women tend to be concentrated in general practice careers, while men in careers perceived to be more prestigious such as surgery. The result of occupational gender segregation is often the under-valuing and under-employment of women.

Data reveals scarcity of female career progression to leadership positions, despite the fact that the overall number of female employees in UK public administration since 2001 has exceeded men. Female employees account for 68% of the UK public sector workforce, but continue to face barriers to attaining leadership positions. Many of the barriers to women’s vertical and horizontal career progression in public administrations stem from the social construction of the biological categories of sex, with masculinity being valued.

What impact does unrepresented public administration have on public policy? A related outcome of unrepresented public administration is poor policy-making. If policy-makers do not include a broad spectrum of the population, then societal interests as a whole will not be included in the policy process. The quality of decision-making suffers, resulting in poor policy outcomes, service delivery and public sector organisational performance. Although the benefit of representative public administrations is evident from research, with implications for trust, legitimacy and performance, there remains a persistent lack of women and other minorities in public institutions, despite legislation such as the UK Equality Act (2010) and EU gender equality policy directives.

Research is needed on the mitigating impact of public sector reforms on representation of women and minorities. In the UK, the Scottish First Minister (a woman) has appointed a gender-balanced government with a female permanent secretary. There are lessons to be learned across devolved politics of whether passive representation has resulted in active representation and the implications for women. The outcomes for women employed, and as beneficiaries of types of public sector organisations would offer valuable comparative data.

As CIPFA President Sarah Howard has said, “The public sector is faced with the challenge of delivering sustainable and efficient services within dwindling budgets and with significant spending pressures from rising demand. Working in public services finance, we need to look not just at the numbers, but ultimately at the outcomes for the people we serve. Having more diverse leadership, including more women in leadership, will not only make the public sector more reflective of the communities it serves, but will help drive innovation to meet that challenge.”

Globally, policy or knowledge transfer on ways in which to improve representation in public administration is needed. The data on women in public administration reveals the persistence of gender inequality in public sector employment. This has implications for public administration institutions. The research argues that the lack of representation of women and other minorities has policy outcomes for the legitimacy, trust, integrity in public institutions, and public policy productivities and performance.

CIPFA held their PMM Live 2018 event at the House of Lords on 7 November, where a series of presentations by respected scholars and practitioners such as Karen Johnston highlighted the lack of diversity in politics and public policy.

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