The civil service has known of its gender pay gap for years. So what’s changed? | Jane Dudman

Too many government departments still have a big pay gap. It’s not enough to pay lip service to promoting women

Breathing and storytelling aren’t the usual tools wielded to tackle the gender gap in the UK’s public bodies. But back in 2015, those techniques were deployed as part of an initiative to increase the number of senior female leaders in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

An innovative training programme, using drama teachers to instil confidence, including through breathing and storytelling, was just one of a series of departmental changes, including flexible working and mentoring.It seemed to have worked: by 2015, BIS claimed to have gender parity – a 50/50 split – in its leadership team. But there were two crucial questions the then head of BIS, Martin Donnelly, overlooked. He might, briefly, have had equal numbers of men and women in his senior management team, but was that sustainable and – more importantly – across the whole department, were men and women getting a fair pay deal?

Roll forward three years to the government’s own mandatory reporting on gender pay and the answer is clear: women who work at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as BIS has become, are paid 15% less on median average than men. The department’s report, published ahead of the 30 March deadline for public bodies to provide information on pay for men and women, spells out the painful detail: “The main reason for the gender pay gap is that there are more men in higher grades.” Far from achieving gender parity, the department has failed to promote women to its most senior levels. Of the organisation’s highest-paid quarter of staff, 61% are men.

This is part of a pattern across the civil service, which has known for years that it’s got a problem, as, unlike most private UK companies, it has been tracking gender pay in its annual staff survey. The first full gender pay gap survey was carried out in December, leading the head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood to acknowledge that there was a median gender pay gap of 12.7% across the service and that representation of women at the highest grades of the civil service “is not what it should be”.

All 17 main departments, and several government agencies, have now filed their results ahead of the March deadline. There are big differences. Despite the Department of Health and Social Care having more women (55%) than men among its highest-paid staff, it still has a 13.3% median gender pay gap; that’s higher than the Ministry of Communities, Local Government and Housing(formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government), where a 9.8% gap is below the civil service average. The Ministry of Justice has a 10.6% median pay gap, but the Home Office has a 15.1% gap. In more specialist agencies, the picture is worse: NHS Digital has a 14.1% median pay gap and Homes England has a shocking 19.6% median pay gap. , for instance, 74.4% of the highest-paid quarter of staff are men, and the median pay gap is 14.6% But at the Department for Work and Pensions, 62.4% of the highest-paid staff are women, and the median pay gap is 0%.

The government legal department pays its female staff a mere 0.7% less than its male employees. But there’s a real problem in transport: the Department for Transport has the biggest gender pay gap of the 17 main departments, paying women 22.6% less than men. Of its highest-paid staff, 68% are men, while the situation is reversed among its lowest-paid staff, 33% of whom are men, and 67% women. The rail regulator has an even higher pay gap, paying women on median average 27.2% less than men.

Only a tiny handful of civil service bodies pay women more than men. At the Care Quality Commission, median pay for women is 1% higher than for men, while women at the National Archives get 2% more. The largest pay gap in favour of female civil servants is at the Food Standards Agency, where women are, on average, paid 16.7% more than men. In analmost apologetic report, the agency says this is because 60% of its male staff work in the two most junior grades, many of them as meat hygiene inspectors, while the average pay of women was raised because until last March its chief executive was a woman.

Traditionally, the civil service has regarded itself as a relatively flexible working environment, with a number of initiatives, including senior job shares and women’s networks, to encourage and support women. But it has been caught in a vicious pincer movement. Not only has it failed to promote female civil servants to the highest ranks, with only 42.4% of the senior civil service who are women and only five female permanent secretaries running the 20 biggest departments, it’s rubbing salt in the wound by hiring in higher-paid men from the private sector to fill in gaps in areas such as digital and technology, and business areas like oil and gas experts. There’s a bigger question, here, about why society regards it as necessary to pay jobs in transport, defence, oil gas and digital more than jobs in, say, meat inspection.

Heywood may have acknowledged the problem, but civil servants want to know what is going to happen. If there’s one lesson we’re learning from all the gender pay gap reports, it’s that no one is doing as well as they had hoped. And all the breathing and storytelling in the world can’t mend that. Only real action will do. Last week, the Foreign Office appointed its first female, black high commissioner, NneNne Iwuji-Eme. To which the only reasonable response is: what took so long?


Jane Dudman

The GuardianTramp

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