Does it matter that men are the public ‘face’ of government?

November 8, 2021

Joakim Honkasalo/Unsplash

From New Zealand to Germany, the pandemic has catapulted many of the world’s women leaders into the global spotlight for their effective efforts dealing with their countries’ COVID-19 responses. By combining science with a care-centred approach, studies show countries led by women achieved better COVID-19 outcomes.

While some women leaders are shining examples of change-makers, the reality is there are still not enough women at the top for us to know for sure whether they make a difference. In addition, the effectiveness of women’s leadership in pandemic responses depends on high levels of social solidarity and trust, a high functioning and inclusive health system, and politicians cooperating across party lines – arguably the very conditions associated with women’s rise to power. Alarmingly, progress that has been made on women’s leadership and participation is under threat in many parts of the world. In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban de facto authorities have made the erasure of women from public space a signature of their regime.

Women are still anomalies in all types of leadership positions. In the private sector women make up only 8.1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 7.8 percent of the S&P 500; in news, women are only 25 percent of those are seen, heard or read about; and in public decision-making, women comprise only 25.5 percent of national parliaments.

A dearth of women

This dearth also extends to public administration, the departments that convert laws and policies into actions, where women make up less than one in three of top leadership positions globally, according to a recent report, Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA), by UNDP and the Gender Inequality Research Lab (GIRL) at the University of Pittsburgh.

Does it matter that the public ‘face’ of government, the bureaucrats who implement national policy, are often mostly men?

Yes. The global challenges we face today, from the pandemic and climate emergency to women’s rights at risk in crisis settings such as Afghanistan, are unprecedented and demand a new approach. We need more diverse and inclusive institutions to provide more effective, innovative and representative solutions.

Why this matters

Two arguments are commonly made for why gender parity in public service is essential:

First, it is about fully exploiting talent and intelligence for governance. Leaving the perspectives and skills of half of the population out of decision-making produces inefficient and unresponsive governance that squanders skills and that is blind to the needs of the most marginalized.

Second, this is about legitimacy. Representative bureaucracies that mirror the population’s make-up by gender but also other characteristics such as race, class, or ethnicity generate stronger trust from ‘client’ groups. Research shows that when public institutions are more gender-inclusive and diverse, governments are more responsive and more accountable.

Until now, the case for the effectiveness of gender parity in public administrations has been hard to make in part because of a lack of comparable data on the proportions of women at various levels of national public institutions.

Hitting the glass ceiling

The recent GEPA report has changed that with, for the first time, data covering 170 countries. It shows that women in all regions of the world continue to hit glass ceilings that stop them from moving to positions at the highest levels of power and influence in the public sector. While women are now on average 46 percent of public administrators, they still hold only 31 percent of top leadership positions.

The report also shows that women in public administration are being siloed into certain areas of policy work, hitting glass walls in addition to glass ceilings. Despite women being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, for example, women’s participation in environmental protection ministries is among the lowest of the 20 policy areas examined. It averages 33 percent globally, and parity in decision-making in environmental protection is rare.

"It is up to all of us to strive to have women at every table, in every part of the world, where decisions are made. Our future depends on it."

With COP26 currently underway, having equal representation of women in the leadership teams and delegations at the climate negotiations is vital for effective action on the climate emergency and a green recovery. Women leaders like Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley have been loudly sounding the alarm on the climate crisis at COP26 and the urgent need for global solutions. Despite this, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas flagged at an event that only 10 of the 140 heads of delegation attending the summit in Glasgow are women.

The time for gender parity in public administration is long overdue. So, how do we get more women leaders and gender parity in public administration?

1. Stronger policies and laws

It is crucial for governments to design policies and laws that tackle deep-seated historic, cultural, and socio-economic obstacles, that recognize the rights and needs of all women and girls, and that boost women’s participation in public and private decision-making. We can do this in part through enforcing gender quotas and bolder targets for equal representation and creating a national gender budget.

2. Invest in the care economy

There must be strong investment in the care economy to compensate women for their unpaid care work, which has soared for many women during the pandemic. This includes investments in the health, social work and education sectors, which are important job generators for women, especially in light of recent findings that show that fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic than men.

3. Cultural change in institutions from within

Public institutions need to walk the talk on gender equality. Adopting zero-tolerance policies for workplace sexual harassment and violence, as well as parental leave policies and flexible working arrangements for work-life balance can bring a shift towards a more gender-egalitarian organization.

4. Feminist leadership

Support ‘femocrats,’ or feminist bureaucrats, women and men who will push for change. Feminist leadership is key because it is not just about getting more women into power, but also the best people for gender equality.

While the pandemic has turned the world upside down in many ways, it also brings with it opportunities to do things differently and better. It is up to all of us to strive to have women at every table, in every part of the world, where decisions are made. Our future depends on it.

This article was originally published in Apolitical.