Posts Tagged ‘equality’

The Civil Service’s gender diversity agenda under the coalition

Daniel Fitzpatrick and Dave Richards examine the patterns of gender representation in the UK Civil Service under the coalition government, and explain why there was a regressive change in the most senior grades. In so doing they emphasise the role of ‘critical feminist actors’ in driving forward gender equality and diversity agendas in Whitehall.

The equal representation of women and men in positions of political power continues to prove elusive. Institutions – including political parties, business, and the media – are criticised for the slow, incremental nature of change. Progress towards the goal of gender parity seems to move at a snail’s pace. But what happens when gender parity is achieved? This is a question we explore in a new article for British Politics examining the patterns of gender representation in the UK Civil Service under the coalition government (2010–2015). In it, we interrogate the claim that there was a regressive change in the proportion of women in the most senior grades of Whitehall during this period.

2011 can be identified as a notable date in which gender parity in the most senior grade of permanent secretary in Whitehall was attained for the first time. It represented a hugely symbolic moment, emboldening the then Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell to declare that the Civil Service had become a ‘genuinely meritocratic’ organisation.

Fast-forward to the end of the Coalition and the claim that meritocracy—free of bias (conscious or otherwise)—as the new norm appeared somewhat premature. The headline figure showed that women accounted for more than half of all UK civil servants (at 53.5%). Yet, a more nuanced examination revealed that the most senior policy roles in Whitehall remained predominantly the preserve of white, middle-class men, with only 38.7% of women working in the top four pay bands. At the highest grade of permanent secretary, the earlier gender parity achieved in 2011 had vanished by 2013, with only four of the 16 permanent secretaries being women, rising to six by that Government’s end.

These shifts in the make-up of Whitehall drew accusations that the gender diversity agenda under the Coalition had at best been de-prioritised. A National Audit Office report concluded that ‘momentum was lost’. Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson regarded it as ‘shameful’, while the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Louise Haigh argued: ‘The top brass of the civil service is now more white and more male than at any time in almost two decades and the glass ceiling which was smashed in 2011 when women achieved parity has now been painstakingly reassembled and reinforced’. O’Donnell’s successor, the now sadly departed Jeremy Heywood recognised the figures were ‘disappointing’ and that they did ‘not represent the gender diversity we are determined to achieve’. It prompts an important question: was Gus O’Donnell somewhat presumptuous to claim in 2011 that Whitehall had become both an exemplar employer and a meritocratic organisation?

What is most notable under the Coalition is the gendered dimension to recruitment at the most senior levels. Women make up more than half of the civil service. For the senior civil service in 2015, the figure was 38.7%, rising above the putative ‘tipping point’ of 40% in 2016. Yet, despite this, the qualitative evidence suggests the culture and practices of the senior civil service were far from being ‘feminised’.

A series of high-profile, ‘early’ departures saw several female Permanent Secretaries (including Helen Ghosh, Moira Wallace and Gillian Morgan from their respective leadership of the Home Office, Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Welsh Government) being replaced by men. This reinforced the perception that the appointment of women at the highest grades remained an issue. 

The Coalition’s perceived ‘problem with women’ was attested by two separate reports from the Hay Group and the National Audit Office which concluded that macho, exclusionary cultures were more prevalent within the upper echelons of Whitehall compared with the rest of the civil service, leading to women ‘choosing to opt out of more senior roles’.

Beyond Critical Mass

What the aggregate data on the Coalition years reveals is an increase in the proportion of women in all grades of the civil service, except the Top 200 group. The contrast in these two sets of figures raises questions over established ‘critical mass’ approaches. The traditional argument suggests that once critical mass is reached, the previously under-represented group becomes more ‘socially prominent’ in the organisation. The point at which critical mass of women in an organisation is reached is portrayed as a step-change for its culture and working practices. Research by Kanter (1977), for example, argues that women must account for at least 40% of an organisation, if there is likely to be any impact upon institutional culture, norms and values.

Our research supports previous empirical studies that question an assumed relationship between ‘sheer’ numbers of women and discernible changes in outcomes and organisational cultures. Part of the explanation points to the absence of a critical mass of women at the top—permanent secretary and director-general level—with the evidence above revealing it flat-lined to around 25% during the Coalition period.

Bringing in the role of the critical feminist actor

In Westminster-style democracies, power and resources tend to be concentrated within a small group of actors. There is a need to focus on the currently under-explored role played by departments and more specifically senior civil servants, as critical feminist actors. Those officials operating within the Top 200 have considerable discretion over the direction of their departments and also have significant managerial autonomy to represent women actively within and across the civil service.

The lack of salience attached to gender diversity in Whitehall by the Coalition highlights the precarious nature of ‘gender mainstreaming’: the ‘embedding of gender equality in systems, processes, policies and institutions’. Our approach here follows those who argue that the policy machinery of gender mainstreaming is ‘weakly institutionalised and easily dismantled when the political landscape changes’. Individual actors—operating alone or more likely in collaboration with others—are required to do the ‘institutional work’ not only in the creation, but also the maintenance, of equality and diversity practices and outcomes.

What this suggests is that in striving to achieve gender diversity, we must also pay heed to the relational role that individuals and structures play in maintaining as well as reaching important milestones in representative bureaucracy, so that these are not merely symbolic victories.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in British Politics.

About the Authors

Daniel Fitzpatrick is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University.



Dave Richards is Professor of Public Policy and Head of Department at the University of Manchester.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Gender and the ‘impact’ agenda: the costs of public engagement to female academics

Engaging in public discussion is a crucial aspect of academia. At the same time, female academics often encounter sexist abuse as a result of such engagement. Heather Savigny draws on interview data to argue that while women may seek to actively build impact and public engagement in to their research agendas, the site of interaction between media and academia is gendered and raced.

In 2014 I was interviewed for the Independent on Sunday about a paper I published on women’s experiences of sexism in academia. The interview, I was advised, would be another excellent dimension to my ‘impact case study’. Here was an example of ‘public engagement’ and the kind of thing that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) agenda is seeking to foster.

Shortly after that interview I received an email telling me that I had been awarded ‘whiny feminist of the month’. The man who had sent this email blind copied in some of my senior male colleagues. His email and publicly available blogpost were clearly designed to humiliate and potentially silence me. (Although I was reassured I was in excellent company: Harriet Harman, Laura Bates, Jo Swinson, Caroline Criado Perez have also been ‘recipients’).

Reflecting on this experience led to a discussion as to whether this constituted ‘impact’ in relation to the requirements of the REF. The institutional response was no. Which in turn got me thinking about what it is that counts as impact. Is it only something that leads to positive change? And what about the negative consequences of engaging in impact and public engagement strategies? Do these not ‘count’, especially knowing women are more likely to be subject to online abuse?

These questions led me to think about the extent to which the REF Impact policy itself is situated in a gendered context. We know that women are under-represented in the academy, with fewer than 25 of out of over 19,000 professors are BAME women. Women are more likely to be negatively evaluated by students; while at the same time be expected to provide greater levels of pastoral care. Women are more likely to have their work devalued; be under-represented at conferences; and less likely to be cited. A key component of feminist theorizing is drawing on the lived experiences of women to expose the ways in which power structures work. And so in my recent paper, I drew on academic women’s experiences to understand whether, and if so, how, public engagement and the impact agenda are gendered.

I ran a survey and a number of in-depth interviews with women academics – from Russell Group to post-1992 institutions, and from science, social science, and arts and humanities asking women what happened when they engaged in the Impact/Public Engagement agenda. What my interviews exposed was a problematic reinforcement of structural failings reinforced through cultural sexism. Cultural sexism is the part where structures fail; where sexism seeps through into our norms and values, to undermine the functions of structures. For example, despite Equal Opportunities legislation and the Equal Pay Act, women are still under-represented at senior level and paid less across academia. These structures are clearly not functioning as intended; undermined I suggest through a cultural context in which sexism (and racism) are reinforced through the lived experiences of isolation, abuse, harassment and silencing. This then translates into a legitimation of structural and symbolic violence towards women: that they are invisible or marginalised becomes ‘just the way things are’ and ‘to be expected’.

We know that women are more likely to be subject to threats of overt physical violence and abuse in the online world and this was reinforced through my respondents’ experiences of physical threats and abuse. Women also described how they had changed research trajectories as a result of abuse. They also talked of how they had taken a conscious decision not to engage with media for fear of abuse. This silencing becomes a form of symbolic violence; an expression of underlying relations of oppression and domination, which as Bourdieu suggests, becomes so normalized and routine that it occurs almost with the subordinate’s own complicity.

Women then are structurally positioned to be complicit in their own silencing. My interviewees were consciously aware of the importance of having a social media presence in developing their careers, for promoting their research, and in that ‘all important job market’. Yet, one of the things that surprised and then shocked me was the number of women who said they didn’t use social media at all as they had seen what happened to women who did, and felt it was worth the potential distress and damage to their health. These women were silenced before they had even spoken.

Of course this silencing has further potential consequences for women’s academic careers: low profile research activity when many are tweeting about their latest paper for citations and improving their ‘h-index’ score, and lack of connection with networks means that women are subject to a double bind of silencing and invisibility in the job market. Being absent in social media debate has the potential to women being absent in opportunities for recruitment.

Some women did speak however of feeling empowered through their experiences on social media, as a consequence of solidarity and connectivity. Senior figures in the field had offered support to junior scholars who had been subject to abuse. One of the interviewees told me about how she struggled – her whole raison d’etre as an academic was public engagement but the costs were not always easy to bear. Women repeatedly expressed their frustration with the extra, unrecognized emotional labour that was a feature of their working lives (although it should be noted, that this is not solely in relation to media engagement).

The emotional labour and costs to a diversity of female academics needs to be factored in to policy decisions both at the level of the REF and in universities and departments. When women are silenced and marginalised, and structural inequalities reinforced, this takes the form of symbolic violence which becomes routinised structurally. To challenge and dismantle this, universities need to take their responsibilities to protect and support their staff with adequate training, policies, and procedures. And it is important for all of us in academia to show solidarity with our female colleagues, to call out the behaviours that silence and marginalize a diversity of women – be that online or in the workplace.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in the Political Studies Review.

About the Author

Heather Savigny is Professor of Gender, Media and Politics at De Montfort University.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


Who will suffer most from Brexit? Effects by region, sector, skill-level and income group

kitty walkerKitty Stewart explores the potential consequences of Brexit for domestic social policy. Drawing on existing research and evidence, she sheds light on the many ways in which social policy in the UK has been affected by EU membership, and hence the likely implications and challenges arising from the decision to leave.

How are the effects of Brexit expected to fall across different groups in the population? We consider the possible differential impact by region, sector, skill-level and income group, and what government might do to mitigate some of the effects.

Effects by region

In terms of the regional impact, studies have reached some contrasting conclusions. Figure 1 presents Whitehall estimates of the effects of different Brexit scenarios by region. The North East, West Midlands, Northern Ireland and North West are projected to be hardest hit. There is a strong overlap with the regions where living standards have already been most squeezed by inflation. Larger predicted effects on regional growth result from a higher dependence on exports in the regional economy and a greater exposure to a change in trade barriers due to the regional composition of goods and services for export. These are different mechanisms to those driving differential inflation – higher expenditure shares in some regions than others on food and drink, clothing and fuel – but if Whitehall projections are right, some regions seem to be doubly exposed.

Figure 1: Provisional growth projections under three Brexit scenarios: Gross Value Added in 2033 compared to retaining status quo

Los et al (2017) use historical data to calculate the share of local economic activity that is dependent on trade with the rest of the EU. Like the Treasury, they find that London and the South East stand to lose least from Brexit, while the North West loses more than 12%, and there are large losses also in Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and East Midlands and the South West. Notably, between 2000 and 2010 local dependence on EU demand was growing in almost all regions except London, where it was falling: London increasingly competes globally (helped by EU human capital) rather than on a European stage. This study also finds a clear positive correlation between the proportion of Leave voters in an area and the extent to which local employment is dependent on the EU, and the authors suggest that we can expect to see a deepening of regional inequality after Brexit; areas already being left behind will be those most affected by the decision to leave.

The conclusions of Dhingra, Machin and Overman (2017) are rather different. They seek to adjust for the extent to which industries could substitute EU inputs from domestic or other sources, and for differences in the level of likely trade barriers in each sector. They conclude that London and the South East might in fact be the regions most negatively affected by Brexit. First, as the importance of EU trade declines, the South East will lose the advantage of geographical proximity to Europe, and other ports around the country may gain from a greater dispersion of trade. Second, trade barriers are generally higher for services, within and outside the EU, so areas specialising in services will be harder hit than those specialising in goods. This is especially true under a ‘hard’ Brexit scenario, as under WTO rules there has been much less progress in liberalising trade in services than goods. Financial services are at particular risk, because under all scenarios except
the Single Market the UK financial sector is expected to lose the ‘passporting’ rights which enable it to operate in other Member States.

Thus in contrast to Los et al, Dhingra et al project that the areas hit hardest will be those which had higher average wages to begin with. However, the authors underline that the differences in expected impacts remain swamped by existing disparities.

Further, while the immediate negative impacts are predicted to be smaller in poorer
regions, households in these regions may have more difficulty adjusting to those shocks as they start from a more vulnerable position. In addition, the bigger immediate shocks may not be the most negative in the longer run. The authors point to a parallel with the 2008 crisis, in which London and the South East were most sharply affected but recovered more strongly, the size and diversity of the regional economy easing the adjustment process.

Effects by sector, gender and education level

In terms of effects on different sectors and groups of workers, Levell and Keiller (2018) estimate that the highest exposed industries are clothing and textiles, transport equipment (including car manufacturing), chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and finance: these export high shares of output to the EU, or purchase high levels of inputs from the EU (or both). The authors identify men as being more likely to be employed in these industries than women, and men with few formal qualifications most of all. The most highly exposed are workers in process, plant and machine operative occupations, who tend to be older men with specific skills: Levell and Keiller note that history suggests these workers may struggle to find equally well-paid work if their current employment were to disappear. The authors also look at regional differences, and argue that differential effects by gender and education level within regions are likely to be greater than average differences between regions, though there are regional differences in the share of low-educated workers employed in the most exposed industries: these industries employ 25% of low-educated men in Northern Ireland and 24% in the West Midlands, compared to 19% in the UK overall.

Note, however, that Levell and Keiller consider only the sectoral effects of new trade barriers with the EU. What happens to particular industries will be affected by other factors too, including what happens to trade barriers with other countries, and, for agriculture, what happens to farm subsidies. Complexity also arises from the fact that the propensity to trade with the EU within a given industry may vary geographically: firms in Northern Ireland may do more EU trade than firms in the same industry in Britain, leaving them more exposed. In short, a great deal of uncertainty remains about how the impacts will play out.

Could some of the negative effects of reduced trade on lower-educated workers be
offset by reductions in migration? Migrants from the newer EU Member States, entering from 2004, are known to have moved primarily into low-skilled employment (even though often not low-skilled themselves) (Portes and Forte, 2017). An end to the free movement of labour might therefore be expected to reduce labour market competition faced by British lower-skilled workers, increasing job opportunities and pushing up wages.

The Migration Advisory Committee, in its recent review of the evidence of the labour market impact of EU migration, finds that migrants have had little or no impact on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce.

This is also true for sub-groups who might be more likely to be affected, such as young people. Rather than replacing UK-born workers, migration appears to boost overall employment more or less one-for-one.

On wages, based on existing evidence and its own analyses, MAC concludes that migration is not a key determinate of the wages of the UK-born workforce. Some evidence does suggest that there are small negative impacts on the wages of lower skilled workers, while higher skilled workers benefit. For example, Nickell and Salaheen (2015) find a 10 percentage point increase in the share of foreign-born workers in the regional semi-skilled/unskilled service sector leads to around a 2% reduction in wages for UK-born workers in that region and sector. A reduction in migrant workers competing for these jobs might therefore be expected to have similar small positive consequences. But it should be emphasised that these are small effects. The MAC report cites Breinlich et al’s (2017) finding that the fall in the value of the pound after the referendum vote raised prices by 1.7%, and notes that this is almost certainly a larger impact than the effect on residents’ wages and employment opportunities of all the EEA migration since 2004.

Effects on income poverty and inequality

Living standards are projected to be lower on average in the future as a result of exiting the EU, with larger effects for scenarios which create more trade barriers with European markets. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation explores the potential impacts on living standards of people in low-income households specifically. They project that the effects will be felt across the whole distribution, rather than disproportionately hitting those at the bottom, and therefore the impact on relative poverty is small for most scenarios. But an increase in prices (expected to be larger under ‘harder’ forms of Brexit) would affect lower-income households very differently depending on government decisions about the uprating of benefits and tax credits. Most working-age benefits have been frozen in cash terms since 2015.

What about incomes at the other end of the distribution? Could it be that, via a reduction in the importance of financial services to the economy, Brexit might lead to a fall in very high incomes and therefore in some measures of income inequality? A substantially smaller financial services sector seems a highly plausible outcome of Brexit, though one that is likely to play out over the long-term. The Bank of England has revised downwards its estimates of the immediate “Day 1” impact on City of London jobs: the estimate remains 5-10,000 jobs, but is now at the lower end of that range. Around 377,000 people work in financial and associated services in the City of London, so this a relatively small fraction of the total. Deputy Governor Sam Woods underlined that “the bigger question is where this goes longer term, and that fundamentally depends on what kind of deal is struck”; in particular whether a model of equivalence can be agreed, which would allow some of the benefits of passporting to be retained.

Could a reduced financial services sector have positive effects for Britain? On the one hand, one must weigh up job losses, including those in supporting sectors (catering, cleaners, IT services) and lower average income for London; on the other, reduced pressure on London housing, less conspicuous wealth and inequality in the capital, and possibly a boost to other industries in other regions. This last could result from a reverse ‘Dutch disease’ effect due to a permanently weaker pound; the opposite of what can happen when the discovery of oil leads to an appreciation of the currency, making manufacturing less competitive. But there is no evidence that any such effect would outweigh the impact of new trade barriers.

Despite their conclusion that low-educated men are most exposed to new trade barriers, Levell and Keiller (2018) estimate that earnings inequality may fall after Brexit. This is not (solely) a financial services effect but results in part from the fact that men are more affected (and in general better paid) than women, and in part because men working in exposed industries tend to be the better paid employees within their education bracket. Thus among low-educated men, highly exposed workers are paid on average 24% more than other low-educated workers, with equivalent figures of 35% for mid-educated workers, and 24% for those with degrees. Brexit may reduce earnings inequality by removing the better-paid jobs for men within each bracket.

What can be done to mitigate the risks of Brexit for inequalities?

There is a strong consensus among economists that Brexit will leave the UK poorer overall in the medium-term. In addition, as discussed here, there is reason for concern that regional disparities could widen, while lower-income households could feel the effects of rising inflation if benefit uprating policy is not revisited. Some good quality jobs are at risk, and there is very limited evidence that falls in migration could help UK-born workers with lower qualifications find employment or see wages rise.

There are a number of actions government could take to try to mitigate these risks. A major strategy for regional and industrial investment is essential. Investment is also needed in education and training: this would allow UK youngsters to fill gaps in health care and other public services. In the immediate term, an end to the freeze on working-age benefits, with retrospective action to restore their value, would ensure those living on the lowest incomes were not left in increasingly difficult circumstances as prices rise due to currency depreciation.

The major challenge, however, is that – despite the claims on Vote Leave’s touring bus – Brexit will mean less not more money available for public spending. The Office for Budget Responsibility project a hit to public revenue of about £15 billion a year by the early 2020s as a result of Brexit, and a cross-Whitehall study increases in annual public borrowing of between £20 and £80 billion by 2033-34, depending on trading arrangements reached. Even with the necessary political will, all the actions proposed will be made much more difficult by these financial constraints.


Note: This post was first published on LSE Brexit. It is an edited extract from What does Brexit mean for social policy in the UK? by Kitty Stewart, Kerris Cooper and Isabel Shutes. Featured image credit: Pixabay.

About the Author

kitty walkerKitty Stewart is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Associate Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE).




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