What is most notable under the Coalition is the gendered dimension to recruitment at the most senior levels. 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 (Healey 2014). The Coalition’s perceived ‘problem with women’ was attested by two separate reports from the Hay Group (2014) and the National Audit Office (2015) 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 in the SCS’ (Hay Group 2014, p. 13).
The next section draws on the interview data to explore and analyse the potential drivers behind this dynamic. In total, nine acting female senior civil servants, operating at permanent secretary, director-general and director level, were interviewed between 2013 and 2015. Of these interviews, seven were conducted face-to-face, with two via the telephone. The semi-structured qualitative interviews explored the enablers and disablers of gender diversity in the UK SCS from the standpoint of the female respondents. Using an abductive approach, key themes were developed iteratively via the reading of the existing literature and analysis of the primary interview data. Three key themes were identified: the impact of institutional contraction (imposed by austerity cuts); the importance of critical mass; and the role of critical feminist actors.
An austerity effect?
An ‘austerity effect’ approach prioritises the specific, historic circumstances under which the Coalition Government found itself, emphasising its response to the repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis. It focuses on a potential causal relationship between austerity and gender diversity in Whitehall. The argument here is that cuts in departmental spending curtail promotion opportunities, which fall harder on the range of opportunities available to women, rendering a negative effect on gender diversity (Rafferty 2014; Blum et al. 1994; Cooper and Austin 2012).
Applying this approach to the Coalition years, the notion of a link between austerity and declining gender diversity in the SCS is a theme borne out by qualitative research. For example, Devanny and Haddon’s (2015) study reveals a number of officials [they interviewed] and commentators claim as a ‘simple fact’ that departmental cuts to staff and the recruitment ‘freeze’ since 2010 had a deleterious impact on opportunities for under-represented groups. This is a view supported by our interviews. So illustratively, one senior official, reflecting on the programme of cuts in personnel, observed that ‘since the election in 2010 … there’s been an active campaign to move out those people who were willing or could be persuaded to go … so it has altered the make-up of the civil service … in terms of its gender balance’. Interestingly though, when prompted, none of the interviewees could be specific about the impact of staff retrenchment on the representation of women. As one female director general commented: ‘I wouldn’t say it’s hit us yet … perhaps because we set out our stall early … but it [austerity] can’t help’.
Elsewhere, the former Treasury Solicitor, Paul Jenkins observed: ‘One of the things we were always very conscious of was that as the civil service shrank in size, the opportunities for promotion into the SCS were going to get fewer—and that’s undoubtedly happened’ (Ross 2014). The lack of officials from underrepresented groups (particularly BME and disabled staff) entering the top grades was seen as an outcome of the ‘restriction in the number of opportunities that are there’ in the last 4 years (Ross 2014). The implication here is that significant headcount reductions create ‘a potentially challenging environment for pursuing a parallel agenda for changing the composition of the workforce’ (Devanny and Haddon 2015, p. 42).
Another theme to emerge from the interview data was the heightened pressure on work–life balance post-2010. One director said that departmental cuts had ‘led to bigger workloads … the need to “do more with less” … which creates real problems for retention’. It can be extrapolated that there were few incentives for women to pursue promotion within the SCS given the increased work pressure and lower financial reward (Brecknell 2013). Evidence from a Cabinet Office (2014) commissioned report supports this view, revealing that 100% of female respondents cited work-life balance as a factor that would deter them from applying for more senior roles in the SCS.
It is difficult to ascertain the impact of austerity on the gender balance of the civil service between 2010 and 2015. The effect of departmental cuts on the SCS as a single cadre was benign; the representation of women also continued on a similar upward trajectory. Departments that bore the most severe cuts, such as DCLG, did not experience a concomitant fall in the proportion of female senior officials. Other departments that grew in size since the 2010 Spending Review, such as the Cabinet Office, still saw a decline of women in senior positions. So while austerity seems to have had a discursive effect on the perception of gender diversity, its impact on the regression in the proportion of women within the Top 200 is not quantifiable.
Beyond a ‘critical mass’ approach
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 within the Top 200 group. The contrast in these two sets of figures raises questions over established ‘critical mass’ approaches (see Meier 1993). The traditional argument suggests that once critical mass is achieved ‘the relationship between passive representation and active representation is constant’ (Hindera and Young 1998, p. 656). Temporal delays notwithstanding (Lovecy 2007), 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.
Women make up more than half of the civil service. For the SCS, in 2015, the figure was 38.7%, rising above the putative ‘tipping point’ of 40% in 2016 (ONS 2016). Yet, despite this, the qualitative evidence suggests the culture and practices of the SCS were far from being ‘feminised’ (Studlar and McAllister 2002, p. 234). Our research supports previous empirical studies that question an assumed relationship between ‘sheer’ numbers of women and discernible changes in outcomes and organisational cultures (Beckwith 2007; Beckwith and Cowell-Meyers 2007).
The increasing proportion of women in the SCS has not been sufficient to prompt a qualitative shift in the gendered norms, rules and practices that characterise the nature of group interactions in Whitehall. The interviews drew varied responses on the issue of the nature of Whitehall culture. One Permanent Secretary said that ‘Whitehall could still be a stuffy place, but is probably as inclusive as anywhere else’. Other respondents viewed it in much more gendered terms, commenting that ‘the culture of maverick still abounds … men are seen as risk-takers, while women’s are … just that … mistakes’. Other studies have identified similar perspectives of a male-dominated environment, particularly within the SCS (Devanny and Haddon 2015; Bagilhole 2002). Respondents to the Cabinet Office (2014, pp. 18, 21) study were more candid, describing the culture of the SCS as a ‘bear pit’; ‘a hideous male macho culture at the top’; and ‘very cut-throat and underhand’. Moreover, a theme of regression is evident. One respondent observed that
Things have changed again particularly over the last 5 years… I have seen the culture become more and more macho. The rise of certain individuals, male, white and hugely opinionated, who do not like anyone questioning them, challenging them has put us back to the dark ages. Women are back to being told they are mouthy, aggressive or not leaders when they disagree or display softer inclusive leadership skills. I have worked at senior level in three departments and have seen this in all (Cabinet Office 2014, p. 21).
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.
The theory of critical mass has been widely contested (Grey 2002, 2006; Childs and Krook 2008, 2009; Lovenduski 2005; Tremblay 2006). Critics claim it oversimplifies the relationship between the descriptive and substantive representation of women by correlating bold numbers with actual outcomes (Lovenduski 2005; Dahlerup 2006). Given the evidence presented here, it offers, at best, a partial explanation of the complex dynamics during the Coalition years in relation to the issue of gender diversity in Whitehall. What is required is an approach that seeks to theorise the relationship between longer-term trends in women’s descriptive representation and the more immediate impact of austerity on the gender-diversity agenda. It is here then that we turn to the contribution by Annesley and Gains (2010, 2012, 2014) as a fuller, more nuanced approach, emphasising the key role played by particular individuals within the core executive as a critical feminist actors.
Bringing in the role of the critical feminist actor
Annesley and Gains (2010) argue that in Westminster-style democracies, power and resources tend to be concentrated within a small group of actors. In the case of the UK, it is the core executive (see Smith 1999). The notion of the core executive aims to broaden the conception of executive power beyond a narrow focus on key central actors, such as the prime minister and the chancellor, to a wider set of institutions, networks and practices at the heart of the British government machine (Rhodes 1995, 2011; Burch and Holliday 2004; Smith 1999). In developing this approach, Marsh et al. (2001, 2003) observe, it is Whitehall departments that are the ‘most important actors in the core executive … given both the resources and influence that they command’ (2001, p. 261). It is claimed that within this particular loci, the dominant resources for agenda setting are located.
From this perspective, 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 SCS (Wilkins 2006; Sowa and Selden 2003). Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary at DCLG, claims that
There is quite a lot that we [sic] can do to make sure that people in leadership roles, making decisions, are more balanced. For example, Permanent Secretaries do have choice about who they bring onto their senior boards from within their overall senior leadership. I took a choice a year ago to bring my HR Director onto my senior team and make it seven rather than six. That immediately upped the ante on the gender front. That kind of choice of who is actually on that board helps. It does not have to be based on grade entirely; it can be based on choice. Sometimes it is a symbol of what you care about. That is why, for me, the representation on those senior teams is something that is a bit more flexible and that we ought to pay more attention to.
This approach suggests that it is actors from the core executive, rather than the wider legislature, who are crucial in promulgating the substantive representation of women (Annesley and Gains 2010). While this active representation may involve the explicit removal of formal barriers to the recruitment, promotion and retention of women in senior grades, it is increasingly targeted at mitigating the informal gendered ‘rules of the game’ that still pervade aspects of departmental cultures in Whitehall (Waylen and Chappell 2013). If the preponderance of such gendered institutional cultures is to be redressed, it is essential that the core executive sets a clear agenda on gender diversity in order to enable, rather than constrain, other critical feminist actors within the public bureaucracy.
From the outset, the Coalition was seen as having a policy vacuum on equality and diversity in Whitehall, evidenced by its failure to develop any coherent strategy. In the light of the Coalition government’s wider political narrative of a smaller state and fiscal consolidation, equality and diversity commitments were downplayed. The issue of austerity was seen as having a key effect, with gender diversity bring framed as a ‘fluffy’ luxury for more prosperous times (Brecknell 2013). Pursuing equality and diversity did not fit with the Coalition strategy on fiscal consolidation and a rhetorical disavowal of centrally driven targets. The previous notion that the civil service should be an exemplar on equality and diversity was marginalised by the imperative for the SCS ‘to show leadership in saving money’ (Macpherson 2010). One senior female civil servant described ‘a little bit of hiatus over the last few years … is [equality and diversity] a priority? Is it not a priority? … that filters down into departments’. Another senior official remarked
We kind of lost the way a bit when the [Coalition] Government came in. In the sense that … we are committed to equality and diversity, but then because a diversity strategy was never signed off, there weren’t clear priorities put in place around E&D. There was a kind of move away from targets … a kind of a dip.
Labour claimed the Coalition had ‘lost sight of the diversity agenda in the Civil Service’, with representation of women, black and ethnic minorities and the disabled ‘stalling or getting worse’ (Dugher 2014). 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’ (Rees 2006, p. 558). 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’ (Annesley and Gains 2010, p. 911). Individuals actors—acting alone or more likely in collaboration with others—are required to do the ‘institutional work’ (Lawrence et al. 2011) not only in the creation, but also the maintenance, of equality and diversity practices and outcomes.
The role of agency in challenging and transforming the dominant masculine hegemony of Whitehall’s structure and culture is crucial. As one permanent secretary explained, ‘it is needed for some people to push back … that creates the space for other to follow behind’. The data analysis above reveals that while progress on the gender diversity can be tracked alongside wider societal changes, improvements overtime in the gender balance of the most senior Whitehall roles cannot be assumed. As Devanny and Haddon (2015) state, ‘it can’t be assumed that because progress has been made and important things have landed that they will then stay—people move on, things change’.
A revealing and recurring theme in our interview data was the crucial role played by Gus O’Donnell as Cabinet Secretary (2005–2011). The former director-general of the Government Equalities Office, Jonathan Rees, argued that O’Donnell had been the driving force of the diversity agenda in Whitehall: ‘He talked about it all the time. He was passionate; he was visible; he was out there’ (Rees 2013). Several respondents remarked upon the how his ‘personal commitment’ and ‘drive’ was instrumental in the advances in gender diversity. Yet, in the context of the British core executive, as other studies have observed, this raises the issue of personalism; the reliance on individual actors to the detriment of a more embedded and institutionalised approach to reform (Smith et al. 2011). A problem recognised within our interviews ‘Gus obviously did great work … but everything was through the prism of leadership and capability … the problem is that different people will emphasis different aspects of leadership at different times’.
The relationship between institutional rules (about gender and with gendered effects) and the actors who work within those rules is not mutually exclusive (Lowndes 2014). The relationship between actors and institutions is iterative and dialectical. From a feminist perspective, actors may seek to reinforce or challenge the gendered effects of institutions. The evidence presented here suggests that since 2010, the failure to improve the gender balance at the top of Whitehall is due to the absence of critical feminist actors in the core executive, coupled to a shift in opportunity structures for reform in a climate of austerity.
We argue that developing Annelsey and Gains’s (2010) approach to include senior civil servants is necessary to better understand the gendered disposition of the core executive and Civil Service. We posit an iterative relationship between the ‘presence’ (Lovenduski and Norris 2003) of critical feminist actors within the core executive, the level of descriptive representation of women within the SCS and Whitehall’s concomitant capacity to act as a critical actor to lead diversity agenda across the civil service. Changes in the gendered dynamics of the core executive are likely to have a significant bearing on the descriptive representation of women, in terms of the representativeness of the public bureaucracy, given the core executive is the key site and agent of change.
How can we account for the varied trends in gender representation within the SCS between 2010 and 2015? One approach is to focus on critical feminist actors in the preceding period under New Labour. As discussed above, senior actors in the core executive collaborated to introduce a range of reforms that formalised the recruitment and promotion process to the SCS to improve on inclusion and diversity. Despite austerity, the demographic data would suggest that these reforms and initiatives had some success, although departmental variation remained a key feature of women’s representation in Whitehall (Devanny and Haddon 2015). Promotion to the top, at the level of director-general and permanent secretary, remains governed by informal ‘rules of the game’ (Richards 2008). In this context, the role of critical actors becomes more acute. The position of senior critical feminist actors—whether male or female—to recognise and champion talented women in the Top 200 and the grades below is crucial. The continued importance of informal networks and patronage (Devanny and Haddon 2015) within this elite cadre means that the absence of such actors has important consequences for gender diversity.
What is potentially revealing is the evidence on the gender imbalance of recruits according to the type of appointments to the Top 200. Data compiled by the Civil Service Commission (CSC)—the independent agency set up to regulate the recruitment of senior officials according to selection on merit—shows that while the proportion of women appointed through external competition has increased over recent years, both internal and ‘exceptional’ appointments remain male dominated. Appointments made through open competition (advertised publicly) account for only three quarters of overall recruitment to the SCS. The remainder of top posts are recruited through internal competition (only open to existing civil servants) and through ‘managed moves’, the latter supposedly by exception. Both of these recruitment mechanisms have led to a much higher proportion of men being appointed (CSC 2014). For example, in 2013–2014, 35% of all recruits to the Top 200 via open external competition were female; however, this figure drops to 13% when senior civil servants are recruited by exception to the usual recruitment principles (CSC 2014).
For managed moves—which require a compelling business case to be made for an exception to the CSC’s Recruitment Principles—the gender imbalance is even clearer: of the requests submitted to the Commission in 2013–2014, 87% were requests to appoint a male candidate (Paun et al. 2013). Appointments through managed moves are becoming more prevalent, with 35% of all recruitment in 2013–2014 being made without complying with the legal requirement for selection of merit following fair and open competition (CSC 2014). The increasing use of this more informal method of recruitment can be seen as a consequence of austerity and the Coalition’s cull of public bodies, as former agency and quango staff were transferred back into central government. In 2012 for example, there were 5300 exception appointments related to the appointment of staff who worked for an organisation that was transferred into the civil service (CSC 2014, p. 25). If recruitment by exception becomes the norm, it is likely to have significant implications for the gender balance of the SCS. As the Commission (CSC 2014, p. 20) concluded thus: ‘Departments appear more likely to choose a male candidate when they are appointing by Exception than they are when recruiting through a fair and open competition’. The routine nature of these ‘exceptional’ appointments to the top grades in the civil service serve as an example of institutionalised male bias. Despite the formal rules on recruitment designed to promote transparency, equality and diversity, the implicit and informal gender norms continue to operate to preserve many of the same (old) expectations, relationships, and power structures (Waylen and Chappell 2013, p. 607).