Women Remain Under-Represented in Public Sector Leadership Across the G20

The fluctuating fortunes of the global economy bring a fresh set of policy challenges to the fore. Policymakers in developed economies need to ensure that the first sparks of growth do not die out, while their counterparts in emerging countries need to identify new ways to accelerate poverty reduction. An issue that continues to resonate the world over, though, is that of diversity. Those governments which possess a diverse group of people devising and implementing policies will be best positioned to drive innovation and solve complex problems. Policymakers also need to access top talent in their country to lead change and redesign services -- something that they will be unable to do if 51% of the population continues to be under represented. Making workforces more diverse not only fosters innovation, but also helps to drive up quality within that workforce, increasing the pool of talent available and offering a plurality of skills, experiences and insights to meet changing needs.

Last year, EY published its inaugural Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders, which showed that while women account for around 48% of the overall public sector workforce they represent less than 20% of senior public sector leadership roles across the G20. We have updated the research to monitor what progress has been made to match the ambitions and public commitments of many governments.

This year's study shows that only six countries in the G20 have over a third or more women in senior leadership roles across the public sector. Canada (45.9%), Australia (39.2%), South Africa (38.1%), the United Kingdom (36.2%) and Brazil (33.8%) -- occupy the top five slots respectively, though South Africa has moved up one place to number three. Overall, the 2014 Index shows a moderately encouraging picture -- in all but five of the countries surveyed the proportion of women in public sector leadership posts has increased.

In the US meanwhile, a recent report from the Obama administration indicates that a larger share of women now work in management, professional and related occupations in the private sector. In 2012, women accounted for 51% of all persons employed in these occupations, somewhat more than their share of total employment (47%). But yet the US ranks sixth in this year's Index with only 33.5% of women accounting for senior public sector leadership roles.

Overall, progress has not been as swift as one might hope. This year's Index again spotlights the fact that women remain significantly under-represented in senior public service roles of most G20 countries, as well as similarly under-represented in parliaments and ministerial positions. On average, the proportion of women in relation to the overall population in the G20 has grown by 1% or 2% annually. At this rate, it would take at minimum five years for even the countries at the top of the Index to reach parity between men and women in these senior public leadership positions.

So, how can we pick up the pace?

We see four streams of action, which when taken together can lead to greater representation of women in leadership roles. First, legislation can address visible barriers and reverse women's under-representation. Second, there needs to be a cultural transformation to address invisible bias. Unconscious bias, in both men and women, is powerful and pervasive. Leaders need to send a consistent message to achieve greater equality at senior levels. Third, role models and leadership are from the top pivotal factors. Policymakers need to ask whether everyone has the opportunity to progress, even if they work part-time and people in leadership roles need to walk the talk.

They need to ask whether progress against gender and other diversity targets in their organizations are measured in a meaningful way, or whether they are merely a routine compliance exercise without action being taken when progress has stalled. Fourth, there are specific actions that need to be taken by future women public sector leaders:

  • Understand the options available to you and assertively look after your interests
  • Learn to negotiate effectively -- your manager will not offer you the right role and coach you into leadership positions unless you can articulate what you want
  • Tell your employer what you want -- be clear about the type of role that will work for you at this point in your life and the role you aspire to in the future
  • Agitate for change -- For women leaders, public sector employees and board members gender equity should not only be considered as a social justice issue. It also improves productivity, engagement, decision-making and results

Our world is in constant evolution. After five years of economic stagnation, growth is increasing in emerging and high-income economies but at the same time more than 1 billion people still live in extreme poverty and demographic shifts present significant challenges. With these trends diversifying and deepening, populations growing and aging, and technology's march accelerating, this is not the time for a return to "business as usual."

More must be done to ensure that governments around the world harness the talent available to solve the challenges -- and grasp the opportunities -- they face. As major employers in the countries they serve, governments' ability to effect social change is not limited to the laws they pass and the services they provide. They can, and should, lead by example to ensure that women are participating fully in the workforce and are strongly represented in leadership roles around the world.

Uschi Schreiber, EY Global Vice Chair Markets Uschi.Schreiber@eyop.ey.com @uschischreiber