Our Perspectives

To promote women’s leadership in the public sector, we need better data


Civil service support officers provide on-the-job training to their South Sudanese counterparts as part of a UNDP governance project. Photo: Brian Sokol/UNDP South Sudan

Public administration is the foundation of government and a major employer in most countries. As such, women’s participation in the civil service is vital for their economic empowerment as well as for mirroring the fabric of society in a country’s public institutions.

Access to open data showing whether women are in fact equally represented in government is of paramount importance. It is the evidence that can tell us where improvements are necessary. While some progress has been achieved in terms of opening up data on women’s representation in other areas of public life, such as the political sphere, UNDP’s Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA) initiative has documented that data on women’s role in the civil service remains largely absent. This data gap is particularly dire when it comes to women’s access to decision-making positions.

The first phase of GEPA culminated in a Global Report (2014), which synthesized the findings of 13 in-depth country case studies. The numbers show that globally, women continue to be underrepresented in the executive branch of government, particularly at decision-making levels:

  • In 11 of the 13 case study countries, women hold less than 30% of decision-making positions in public administration.
  • Women occupy 15% or less of decision-making positions in 7 of the 13 case study countries.

Improving on these figures is hindered by an overall lack of data, evidence and consequently, knowledge of where and how to address this issue, which is at the heart of the governance agenda. As opposed to progress in global monitoring of gender equality in the political sphere, there is no tracking mechanism for women in public administration.

So, while the GEPA initiative has provided a snapshot of evidence pointing to a problem of global magnitude, we do not currently have a coherent picture of the level of exclusion of women from leadership roles in this critical area of the public sector. This gap makes it virtually impossible to set goals, advocate and monitor progress.

So the question is twofold: What data is needed? How can it be made accessible?

Most countries have civil service commissions, most undertake civil service censuses and most have traceable payroll systems with their ministries of finance. Thus, the data we need to create real change does exist, but it is sitting idle and waiting to be collected, analysed and synthesised for policy-making.

To fill this gap, the second phase of the GEPA initiative is currently focused on developing a global tracking mechanism for women in public administration. The aim is to have data that responds to the simple questions of how many women are employed in the civil service and how many of them occupy decision-making positions. This data must first of all be collected at both national and local levels, and it must be owned by national institutions. Subsequently, this data could and should become a standard indicator, alongside women in parliaments, ministerial positions, the judiciary and the private sector.

With the ongoing discussions of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, we are reaching a critical juncture for making sure that the Post-2015 Data Revolution, which is currently high on the agenda of the international community, will also be a Gender Data Revolution. Without this, we are missing the first of the tools we need to dismantle the glass ceilings in government.

Talk to us: Do you know if women are equally represented in your national or local government? Why is it important to increase the number of women in the civil service?

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