Posts Tagged ‘women’

Like many women before her, Theresa May was set up to fail | Stefan Stern

While men like Chris Grayling manage to keep their jobs, the prime minister’s failure will confirm to macho Westminster that women just can’t cut it

You can have sympathy for the person even while you are reading out a lengthy charge sheet. This is not a plea in mitigation for the departing prime minister. Theresa May was handed a difficult task and she botched it. By her own admission, she failed. But then there is no such thing as a good Brexit, and no one can achieve one.

In a pattern familiar from senior appointments made in business and elsewhere, the step up to the top job proved a stretch too far. The qualities which seemed to have served May pretty well in her career to that point proved a weakness and a vulnerability in the highest office. Sadly, she (or her advisers) believed her own hype. May appeared to relish being labelled “a bloody difficult woman”, and saw obstinacy as a virtue – fatal at a time when flexibility and imagination were required.

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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).

Brexit party candidate favoured benefit cuts for single mothers

James Bartholomew also criticised culture of majority-black US cities in 1993 article

A candidate for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in the European elections described majority-black inner cities as being dominated by “a culture of physical violence, selfishness and predatory sex”, it has emerged.

James Bartholomew, a journalist and author who is standing in the south-east region, called black neighbourhoods of US inner cities “a Lord of the Flies culture” where “uncontrolled male adolescent values” are the norm.

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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).


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