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One executive’s view on the shortage of women in public sector leadership positions and how quotas can help

October 24, 2014
Diversity & Inclusion
“After forty years, we should be further along in having women in senior government positions,” insisted Uschi Schreiber, a global board executive with the professional services organization EY, during our talk at the U.N. Foundation headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The reason for her conclusion is unfortunate.
Although women account for nearly half of the public sector workforce, they hold only 20 percent of the public sector’s leadership positions, according to EY’s latest “Worldwide Women Public Sector Leaders Index 2014” report.
The typical female civil servant will serve the public, feeling good about what she’s doing for her country, but never reach the top rung of the government career ladder.
She may feel she deserves a promotion from her “General Schedule” position into a coveted “Senior Executive Service” position. But in reality, it seems there is some combination of cultural expectations, her own preferences and workforce biases that keep her toiling away at her non-executive position.
The facts say that she should stop dreaming. Her fate is to stay where she is.
Apart from a handful of countries among the 20 that EY examined, women just don’t get promoted to positions of influence in the government.
According to Schreiber, this problem differs from the one that arises from the lack of women CEOs in the top Fortune or FTSE 500 companies and on private-sector corporate boards.
“Everybody talks about how there aren’t many women on corporate boards and at top levels in the private sector, but the problem is worse when it happens with the government,” Schreiber explained to me when we met in early October. “It looks like a systemic problem.”
Government promotions are supposed to be based on merit and thus able to avoid the justifications — women take time off to have children, they don’t ask for promotions, they’re too abrasive — that are typically cited to explain why women are absent in the private sector’s upper echelon.
Yet governments are not much better than the private sector in putting women in senior positions.
EY’s report counts up the women holding senior, non-politically-appointed positions in the public sector and then ranks the countries according to the share of women in these top leadership positions. The data don’t include elected and politically-appointed officials. (The survey only covers 20 countries and leaves out a number of important nations, including the Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Chile and Spain. It does include the European Commission, which comes in eighth with its 27.5 percent women’s share. The survey and research was conducted by the international research team at Dods. Senior executives constitute roughly the most senior 10 percent of public officials. The data were chosen, in part, for their comparability across countries.)
“Frankly, I’m surprised to see such a low percentage of women in government leadership positions around the world,” she said. Only six countries have one-third or more women in these public sector leadership spots. The rest hover at around 20 percent and below.
Canada, where women make up 46 percent of Ottawa’s senior public leadership positions, can take bragging rights. Canada’s long history of implementing programs designed to promote under-represented groups explains this outcome, according to the report.
Australia (39 percent), South Africa (38 percent), the United Kingdom (36 percent) and Brazil (34 percent) fill up the next four spots. With no women public sector leaders, Saudi Arabia is at the bottom of the list. Japan comes in second to last – women make up only 1.8 percent of its public sector leaders. Turkey (9 percent), China (9 percent), and South Korea (5 percent) have relatively small shares of women at the top of the public sector, and showed declines in these shares since EY published its inaugural report in 2013.
The United States comes in sixth in this competition with 33 percent. Women account for one of every three public sector leaders in the federal government. These leadership positions include the Senior Executive Service in approximately 75 federal agencies, and exclude Cabinet members and top presidential appointees, such as secretaries, assistant secretaries and so forth. The data are from the Office of Personnel Management, which manages the overall federal executive personnel program.
As low as it is, 33 percent is much better than the 18 percent of elected officials and 17 percent of private sector board members the EY report identifies.
But  33 percent isn’t good enough.
There’s no excuse for having just one of every three of the federal government’s public sector leadership positions filled by a woman.
If the government won’t voluntarily promote women, perhaps it should consider another way to get women in the upper levels — quotas.
“I’m in favor of quotas — that’s my personal view,” said Schreiber, who has held senior positions in government and the private sector. “I’ve been hearing since I was 13 years old that change was coming — I’m over 50 now and it’s time for that change to happen!”
“Quotas aren’t the answer everywhere,” she acknowledged, “but some countries need pushing rather than leaving change up to a community’s good will.”
Quotas haven’t generally been popular in the United States, often because they stigmatize those who advance by calling them a “token.”
But there’s evidence that by putting women in leadership positions, quotas can change people’s attitudes and, in so doing, help eliminate implicit biases against women.
India provides some such evidence. In a set of randomly selected villages in India where only women were allowed to run for office, i.e., quotas were imposed, a survey taken after the elections found that people in villages with quotas were much more likely to see women as competent leaders than those from villages that didn’t have quotas. Before the quota, voters had never had the chance to evaluate a woman’s performance. After the quota, voters had a basis on which to judge, and they judged women leaders favorably.
Businesses also seem to be considering quotas as a way to break the barrier to getting women in senior positions. A survey by Grant Thornton found that business support for quotas to increase the number of women on corporate boards rose to 45 percent from 37 percent a year ago.
According to Schreiber, leadership teams need to make themselves uncomfortable to bring about change.
“Quotas help bring about that change and get around the unconscious bias that many women face. People like to be surrounded by people they’re comfortable with and, if those people have always been men, then they’re going to be comfortable with men around them.”
She concluded our conversation by saying: “We don’t have to live with unconscious bias. We can create a leadership team that is willing to address gender equity. We can promote women.”
By Joann Weiner

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