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Female Leaders Do Make a Difference in the Public Service

02/25/2015 05:21 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Female Leadership does make a difference for the Public Service

After years of work to increase the representation of women in the Public Service (PS), we can finally focus on the impact of this increase on the work of the PS and the formation of public policy and legislation. Studies in the private sector demonstrated the correlation between more women on boards and in senior executive roles and increased returns on equity and higher profits. At Carleton, we are now studying the impact of women in public service Leadership with the study to be completed this year.

Measurement is challenging because the link between creation of policy, programs and legislation and outcomes is not readily discernible. Work is done in teams across departments and leaders at all levels input into the final recommendations. Ministers make the final choices. We cannot simply look at economic data to tell us impact. Interviews with current and retired public servants, conducted by researcher Marika Morris PHD, are eliciting a wide variety of possible impacts. A recent gathering of leaders at Carleton, from across all sectors, has contributed to the discussion and elicited new questions. So why measure impact at this point in time?

Transitioning from academia to the Public Service in 1984, I immediately noted that women were not visible in executive positions, similar to universities at that time. I soon discovered that women constituted about 45 per cent of the Federal work force and 5 per cent of executive positions. Current parental leave programs were not in place and advancement was challenging for women. Women felt they needed to work harder than men to get promoted and often watched in frustration as less qualified males were given the promotions. Sexual harassment and attitudinal barriers were not uncommon. In 1990, a Federal Task Force on Barriers to Women in the Public Service published their report aptly titled, Beneath the Veneer setting out a number of recommendations for removing the barriers to recruitment and advancement of women.

In 1996 the Employment Equity Act was made applicable to the Federal Public Service.

Fast Forward to 2015 where women now constitute approximately 55 per cent of the Federal Public Service and men 45 per cent. Women make up around 44 per cent of the executive ranks and approximately 30 to 35 per cent of the deputy ranks. These significant changes were driven by leadership at the top and changes to human resource management through the development of rigorous and objective hiring and promotion practices to eliminate bias and level the playing field. Merit became the key criteria for recruitment and promotion with the Public Service Commission monitoring the process. Progressive family policies and benefits made the PS more attractive to women and to men as well.

A rosy picture now. Is all the work done on recruitment and promotion of women? Can we declare success and move on. While applauding the many advancements, dark corners remain. Women are largely positioned in administrative support roles (79 per cent), with only 25 per cent in technical and 29 per cent of operational roles. At the deputy minister level, women have not attained parity. Silos exist in some departments where women continue to be underrepresented. Challenges remain for women and men from other cultures, Aboriginal people and disabled persons.

Despite the work remaining, research to understand the impact of creating gender diversity is timely. We can celebrate the successes to date and work to understand the important impacts of these changes.

Over the years that I spent in various roles in the PS, I saw evidence of the impact in changing culture. Transformation of human resource policies made the path for women's advancement less fraught with pitfalls and unconscious bias. Images of women's role and abilities became more positive. I remember being told that I was very "ambitious" as if it was something to be ashamed of as a woman. Ambitious men were applauded. Shedding a few tears on one occasion, when I was frustrated beyond measure by roadblocks, a male leader said he was surprised and did not think "strong women" cried. Today we would be less likely to hear these comments.

Women now play roles at all levels of government bringing different leadership styles and perspectives. Mentoring has become more common and family-friendly policies have been strengthened benefiting both men and women. Leadership styles, in general, have changed from the command and control models of leadership to a more empowering style. As an executive, I was privileged to attend some Cabinet meetings. Here, I saw women bringing a different perspective to the table and at one very memorable meeting seeing the members almost in tears listening to the incredibly powerful appeal made by a female Cabinet member, when seeking approval of an important policy choice touching the lives of a number of Canadians.

Women from different demographic backgrounds and experiences have influenced policy and operational decisions respecting challenges facing minority groups. No doubt women have impacted many social and economic policies that improve the lives of both men and women. Different perspectives will result in changes even if they cannot be quantified. This is the very value of diversity. I am confident that the addition of more women and diversity in the PS makes government better able to serve Canadians across the country within the multiplicity of cultural heritages that constitute Canada.

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