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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Women’s Leadership globally and locally

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Meg spoke at the National School of Government’s conference for UK and international public sector women leaders.

Thank you for inviting me to open this fourth ‘International Women’s Conference’, organised by the National School of Government.

This year is a very significant anniversary for women in Britain. Ninety years ago this month, single women over 30 gained the right to vote under the 1918 Representation of the People Act. In July this year it will be eighty years since women won equal voting rights with men.

How much further we have moved towards gender equality since then is a matter of intense debate. But I think we can be absolutely certain of one thing. We are not going backwards.

The recently published book: Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of our next Economic Revolution, described the 21st century as being about the three “Ws” the web, the weather and women.

Key Initiatives

At last year’s Conference I set out some of the key initiatives toward greater gender equality in pay, pensions and to help women stay in the workforce. In addition, those helping create greater provision for childcare, part-time and flexible working, skills training and development.

I was interested to see that the survey following last years Conference showed that the number one factor for women seeking Senior Leadership Roles in the public sector was an understanding and acceptance of the need for:

  • a good work/life balance,
  • flexible working patterns, and
  • the eradication of the culture of long working hours.

In 2003 we introduced the right to work flexibly and since then almost a quarter of parents with children under the age of 6 have asked for flexible working arrangements. From April 2007 carers of adults have also been given the right to request flexible working arrangements. In last November’s Queen’s Speech, we announced we would extend the right to parents of older children. Imelda Walsh, the Human Resources Director of Sainsbury’s, is looking at where the new cut-off age for the child should be.

As you will probably know, last April we introduced the Gender Equality Duty for all public authorities. I’m sure that many of you here have been directly involved in drawing up departmental equality schemes to:

  • eliminate discrimination and harassment,
  • promote equality of opportunity between men and women, and
  • assess the impact of all policies and services on gender equality.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which opened its doors last October, will play a central role in ensuring departments are fully compliant with the legislation.

Achieving Senior Leadership

We also need to lead by example when it comes to senior leadership.

Recent studies in the private sector have underlined the critical importance of gender diversity at senior level to business success. A 2004 ‘Fortune 500’ study in the US indicated that those companies with the highest proportion of women in their senior teams outperformed those with the lowest proportion.

Research in the UK has produced similar results. Companies where women are strongly represented at Board and senior management level are performing better, in terms of returns on equity, sales and invested capital, than companies where women are few in number at the top.

The same is true for innovation and creativity. Businesses with a more even gender balance at the top are doing better than those without that balance.

But as the business case becomes increasingly clear, understanding fully the barriers preventing or discouraging women from reaching the most senior levels and how to tackle them, is not.

The findings of the National School of Government’s survey on women in senior leadership roles in the public sector are revealing. Four out of the top five barriers to women seeking senior roles were personal factors:

  • domestic caring responsibilities,
  • undervaluing personal leadership skills and competence,
  • limiting personal beliefs and
  • insufficient self-confidence.

The principal organisational factor was long working hours. 

We need to approach the issue from two perspectives:

  • how do we encourage and support women on a personal level, and
  • how do we change the way an organisation works to make it possible to combine demanding leadership roles with the way women and men want to lead their lives outside the workplace?

The percentage of women in the Senior Civil Service, including top management posts, is growing steadily up from around 26% in 2003 to over 32% in 2007. But we are not yet at next month’s target of 37%. Some Departments, including my last one - Communities and Local Government, have already surpassed the Civil Service target.

A Particular Challenge

In the Foreign Office only 18% of our Senior Management Structure are women. We have the particular challenge of moving staff, many with spouses and partners in a different career, to increasingly more demanding, remote and potentially hostile environments around the world. This poses particular problems for family life.

We have to understand better whether it is the mobility requirement, or other factors which discourage women diplomats from pursuing careers at a senior level. We plan to carry out in-depth research across the Foreign Office to identify what the problems are, and then decide how best to tackle them.

We are already looking at how we can take a more flexible approach to the way jobs are structured and how they are done, using technology to support remote working as far as is practicable. We are shortly introducing a new IT system across the whole Foreign Office network, at home and overseas, which will offer greater opportunities to work flexibly with modern technology.

Role models are an important inspirational factor. We are encouraging our staff at all levels - men, women, those from different ethnic backgrounds and colleagues with disabilities - to become role models and show that it is possible to be different, to work in a different way and to succeed.

Mentoring is another important tool. All Board members and Directors are encouraged to mentor colleagues. We’ve recently introduced reverse mentoring where junior staff mentor Directors and Directors General. A new global, on-line mentoring programme is proving very successful.

Working with colleagues in other Whitehall Departments and the private sector, we are exploring co-coaching programmes. Next month the Foreign Office is hosting a meeting of the Executive Women’s Consortium. This group comprises senior women executives from international corporations and women in our senior management team to share ideas and experience.

Networks of common interest and practice can play a vital role both in professional development and personal support. We have a thriving Senior Women’s Network, launched just last September, some of whose members are at today’s Conference.

I hope that you will today share your knowledge and experience, and continue to work together collectively. The more we work together the more likely we are to succeed in changing both practice and behaviour to ensure that all women have the opportunity to achieve their professional and personal goals.  

Women make up more than half the population of Britain and half of the workforce. If we, as public sector organisations, are to develop policies and services which meet their needs, our needs, women must be present at the most senior decision-making levels. Only then can the public sector truly represent the people we work for.

I wish you every success with the Conference and look forward to hearing your thoughts and conclusions.

Further details visit: http://www.nationalschool.gov.uk/women/index.asp 

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