International Women's Day: Women in Public Finance tackling the gender divide

30 March 2017

By Marcel Holder-Robinson, finance policy manager (governments), CIPFA


There has been a wealth of research that shows having gender equality in leadership strengthens a country’s competitiveness and economic development efforts. But, while some progress has been made globally in advancing gender equality, the pace at which it occurs has been relatively slow within countries and especially in the public sector.  There is a myriad of reasons from lack of political will, cultural challenges to motivational factors.

In 2014, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produced a report about the state of play for women’s access to public sector leadership positions and the extent to which gender-responsive policy making has been mainstreamed throughout the public sector in member countries.

The report highlighted that while more women in OECD countries are employed in the public than private sector, too few women were being given the opportunity to assume leadership and decision-making roles in government. Encouragingly, the UK currently leads European nations in terms of the proportion of women in senior civil service roles.

According to UK Civil Service 2016 Report, 54.2% of all Civil Service employees were women, up 0.4% from 31 March 2015. However, across the Civil Service, the percentage pay gap of women in senior positions is on average about 6.3%. In at least three departments, the pay disparity was over 10%.

Therefore, the research shows that there is still some way to go in ensuring gender equality. And, to ensure the right long-term solution is found, it must be a collaborative effort between all services working in the public sector. Anything less will yield limited and unsustainable results.

There are many global examples of initiatives that try to boost the gender diversity of certain departments within the public service workforce. One being, the African Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (AFROSAI) Gender Strategy. These programmes are of course welcome as they provide a quick-fix to the issue, but it is critical that there are steps taken to ensure outcomes are realised across all services over the long-term.

Indeed, such programmes should be aligned to an overarching gender equality agenda which is controlled by central government. As rather than implementing initiatives that just concentrate on certain spheres within public services, for example African audit institutions, it is vital that there is a holistic approach so that the whole sector can work together to achieve the same goal.

Our membership currently stands at over 14,000 public finance professionals in 49 countries; with an average 32% female representation. A number of our female members have broken the glass ceiling; moving into senior leadership positions such as director general of departments.

Interestingly, our students’ ratio is strikingly different - almost 50:50. They are the future of public finance and it is very important that equal access to opportunities and in leadership is available to them. Change is happening but a lot more must be done.  The time is right for us to take positive action. After all, it is imperative that the public sector harnesses this untapped workforce for benefit of all.