The 50 percent club

By Martin Donnelly

A UK government department has recently achieved full gender balance on its leadership team. Martin Donnelly reports on the four-year journey and what remains to be done.

The British Civil Service is powered by women, who make up 53 percent of its workforce. But they hold only 38 percent of the leadership roles—a greater degree of female representation than we find on FTSE 100 boards or the UK judiciary, but still not enough. Public service must reflect modern Britain and harness everyone’s talents, as a matter of effectiveness as well as fairness. Gender imbalance has been a long-standing frustration and challenge for the government’s most senior officials, and we are committed to ending it.

When I became permanent secretary for the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS),1 in 2010, I decided to make gender diversity a personal priority, reflecting a strong political commitment in this area. In November 2014, the department announced that, for the first time, 50 percent of our 170 most senior leaders were women. In addition, women hold four out of eight seats on the BIS executive board, some working part time. We have successful women in job-sharing roles who lead key policy areas, such as higher education and research, and a range of impressive role models among our 85 senior female executives.

I want to share the story of our efforts to make gender diversity a reality at BIS, not because I think we’ve fully cracked the problem, but because all of us who lead organizations—whether in the public, the private, or the nonprofit sector—are grappling with the challenge of embracing diversity. We are grappling with it not because we should, but because we must. Our starting point is a commitment to change the culture of an organization so that a lack of diversity stops being the norm and is seen instead as a real problem. Changing the status quo is everyone’s responsibility, not through annual objectives, but through a shared understanding that we can’t deliver policies successfully in challenging times without a diverse leadership team to help us make more objective decisions and provide the resilience a fast-moving external environment demands.

In BIS, we started by focusing on the organization’s behavior and values. Our mission is to open up the British economy, to connect people with prosperity across the country. How we do so matters as much as what we do. Our responsibilities are wide ranging, from science and innovation policy to better regulation, consumer rights, universities, and apprenticeships. BIS thrives only when we collaborate internally, with business, and with academia—and when we are truly committed to one another’s success, not just to managing our own fiefdoms. All of our 3,000 core staff members must take responsibility for their own roles in facilitating economic growth. The world outside the government is changing fast. We have to be flexible and innovative to stay ahead of the curve by learning to be as effective with social media and digital delivery as we are with traditional stakeholders and Parliament.

Clarity on our values was a big step. But it wasn’t enough to make the department a better place to work or to promote an environment where women could really develop their potential. We needed to internalize the culture we sought to create, not let it remain a mere slogan in an entrance hall or an abstract goal. We had to focus on individuals and on the teams they make up, because the real insights about what has to change come from personal experience. To find them, we had to build a more trusting and less hierarchical culture.

We started off by running a series of informal talks, called “Have your cake and eat it,” by successful women inside and outside BIS, as well as the occasional man, including me. We talked about how these leaders had balanced work, family, and other responsibilities; the trade-offs they had faced; and, all too often, the unnecessary difficulties that unsympathetic or complacent management had forced them to overcome. These talks boosted the confidence of emerging women leaders and gave them role models. They underscored the need for an organization that would not tolerate unacceptable behavior on diversity issues or have an inflexible model of leadership.

But we needed to do more, and on a more practical level. I began meeting informally with small groups of women across the department. I talked about my own family experience, including a spell as a single parent with three young children, and about how I’d had to fight to negotiate “space” in my career to be the father I wanted to be as I rose through the ranks. Telling my own story, even in a neutral, safe space, was an effort for me. I had to challenge my own assumption that strong leadership means never showing weakness or vulnerability. But my frankness encouraged the women I spoke with to share their own personal (and sometimes deeply intimate) concerns. I learned a lot more about issues I thought I understood. These ranged from child-care challenges to the problems facing the only unmarried woman on a team whose other members, with families, implicitly assume that her evening sports class is less important than their responsibilities at home, so she is always the one who can stay late. I learned how many people manage complex and sometimes heart-rending personal circumstances while being committed to their work at BIS.

We have begun making practical changes to the way we do things: keeping closer tabs on how well represented women are in our talent pipeline, finding supportive friends for staff members balancing complex jobs and part-time hours, and rolling out unconscious-bias training for all our senior managers. We have adopted an approach I introduced while in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO): after hearing firsthand about the challenges of resuming a career after having children, I began offering all women leaders coming back from maternity or other forms of leave a guaranteed six-month job for however many days a week they wanted it. This approach provides some women with precisely the bridge they need between time off and the next big job. It means that both in the FCO and BIS, we have hung on to a lot of very talented people.

The most profound lesson I took from this experience was an understanding, not just of the practical changes needed to make the workplace better for female staff members, but also of the fact that men and women alike did not always feel they had the space or the trust to share with their colleagues what was relevant about their personal lives. This lack of trust was impeding the ability to do their jobs and eroding their confidence in seeking promotion. It particularly affected women, who were often more reluctant to take the risk of seeking a promotion that could affect their work–life balance. This, of course, was a basic leadership challenge not just for me but for all of us on the senior team. We had to show that we were people with our own lives, personalities, and challenges, including how we were still learning to work together effectively. We needed to be more open as a team to share all these issues and forge an environment where both we and our staff bonded with trust and honesty. Only then could we really ensure that the diverse personal circumstances of the staff would be taken into account, because only then would we know about them.

Dealing with these issues is a challenge for BIS and indeed the whole Civil Service, an organization that reveres intellect and has a culture built on logic and rigorous policy analysis and delivery. If we are perfectly honest, we must also recognize a certain personal detachment derived from our place advising the government of the day rather than bringing our own views into the workplace. To shift this culture, one of our approaches has been to build our storytelling ability, the better to connect on a personal and emotional level as well as intellectually. For example, we recently ran a session for all of our senior leaders—both male and female—to develop their storytelling talents. We have enlisted the help of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), which is challenging us to go beyond our traditional, somewhat reserved civil-service shells and communicate with one another and the world at large in different and more open ways. That training has increased the personal impact of all our staff, whether male or female, and allowed us to have some fun in the process. We have good stories to tell of the difference we make, and we have great people to tell them, each in his or her individual way.


We are not anywhere near the end of the process. We still have a lot to learn and more trust to build. But my senior team and I share a sense that we are going in the right direction, that our intention and effort to change the culture of BIS permanently—so that it becomes more open, confident, and personal—is paying off. We hope that talented people who share our approach will want to work with us, fully understanding that no one at the department will become a senior manager if he or she lacks commitment to extending diversity and building supportive teams. And across other UK government departments, things are changing, too. In 1996, just 17 percent of the country’s most senior civil servants were women. That proportion has more than doubled. We still have some way to go, but we are getting there. And we are convinced that the journey is worth the effort.

About the author(s)

Martin Donnelly, the permanent secretary for the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, has served on the board of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as in leadership positions across the British Civil Service.

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