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Gender inequality at executive level in the public sector

Men must recognise that there is a problem with gender equality within the public sector, and that they are part of the solution.

The business case for gender equality at the most senior level of organisations has been made time and time again. Despite this, achieving gender balance continues to challenge.

The UK private sector has been strongly criticised for its lack of progress in increasing the number of female executive directors at board level. Yet, while a great deal of attention has been paid to ‘balance is better’ within the private sector, less attention has been given to this issue in the public sector.

So, how does the public sector compare?

Set against perceptions of better working conditions and a more favourable work life balance, the statistics for gender equality at senior levels of the public sector are surprisingly not much better.

In a study investigating gender equality at executive level across the Northern Ireland (NI) public sector, a team led by Professor Joan Ballantine, Ulster University reveal some interesting findings:

Women held just 29% of all executive level positions.

Some parts of the public sector are doing better (health and education) than others (local government, senior civil service) in moving towards gender equality in executive level positions.

Horizontal segregation still exists, with senior female executives more likely to be employed in gender stereotypical roles such as human resources.

On a positive note, organisations with a female chair are one and a half times more likely to have a greater number of females employed at executive level.

The data reported speaks for itself – gender inequalities exist in the public sector.

So, what explains the levels of gender inequality found in the NI public sector? 

Using data collected from a survey of 3,186 responses and over 100 interviews with current and aspiring executives (both male and female), employed across the NI public sector, the team from Ulster University were able to piece together a picture of some of the issues contributing to gender inequalities.

Informal communication networks can exclude women

While a range of barriers were identified as having an impact on career progression for both males and females, some specific barriers were identified by females only as impacting on their potential to advance to senior levels. For example, exclusion from informal networks of communication and the existence of a long-hours culture were cited as specific barriers faced by females alone:

Barriers to Career Progression for Females Only in the N.I. Public Sector

Flexible working not available in senior positions

Also, surprisingly, while flexible working is available in all organisations making up the NI public sector, interviewees reported that a gap exists between the rhetoric of current policies and the reality.

For example, many interviewees (both male and female) reported negative perceptions around flexible working: ‘senior positions can only be undertaken on a full-time basis’, ‘those using flexible working arrangements are not committed to their organisation’, and ‘it is difficult to progress to senior levels if you are availing of flexible working’.

Senior executives must be held accountable for the advancement of aspiring females

The data also highlighted some stark differences between male and female executives regarding their perceptions of organisational culture and female stereotyping in the public sector. For example, females indicated that their organisation has not devoted sufficient resources to promoting gender equality at executive level and that holding senior executives accountable for the advancement of aspiring females is important.

While many differences were found between the views of current and aspiring executives, both males and females, much greater agreement was reported for the benefits of gender balanced boards in terms of their ability to: facilitate different perspectives; positively change or moderate behaviours; and their ability to lead to more deliberate, collaborative and careful decision making.

What can be done to improve gender equality in the public sector?

Based on the study, the team from Ulster University make several strategic, policy and process recommendations. In particular, the potential role of targets, the positive impact of a senior Gender Champion and the need to collect robust gender equality data are important for progress. The study has helped to shed significant insights into the issues which impact on gender equality at the executive level of the public sector.  However, it is imperative that the debate around gender equality in the public sector is not viewed as a female issue only – men too must recognise that there is a problem and that they are part of the solution to addressing it.

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