Calling Time of Gender Inequality in Public Finance

Gillian Fawcett, Co-Founder, Public Finance by Women | March 6, 2020 |

Women’s International Day and Women’s History month celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.  But while there is much to cheer about women’s contributions to improving public financial management, we still need to know the extent to which women are making it to the top at the same level and pace of men, and whether they view public financial management as an attractive career.  

Public Finance by Women (PFW), a new organization established to support women in public finance strongly believes that it is only when we have robust data that we will be informed as to whether or not women are breaking through the glass ceiling in sufficient numbers. When we have more data, we will be better placed to understand the root causes of inequality and have the potential to improve the targeting of the causes of inequality. This in turn can lead to different design solutions.

To promote debate about gender equality PFW conducted a short survey to test the temperature of how gender equality is advancing across public services and identify what would be the best forms of support and advice to help women succeed in their careers. The results were a mixed bag.

Of the 107 respondents surveyed, from 22 countries, 69% indicated they had experienced some form of gender discrimination during their careers.  The top three areas of gender discrimination experienced by respondents were unconscious bias in the workplace, biased recruitment, selection and promotion processes, and unsupportive line management.  One respondent commented, “unconscious bias in line managers and leaders is the biggest impediment to growth and development.”

Sixteen percent of female respondents had experienced age discrimination and seventeen percent of female respondents identified sexual harassment as an issue. Clearly, we would want these percentages to be zero. 59% of respondents felt that gender equality is advancing, while 23% disagreed, and 18% didn’t know. At face value this seems an encouraging response, but without comparative data we do not know whether this indicates a real improvement.

Unbiased recruitment, selection and promotion processes were identified by 51% of respondents as the top enabling factors helping women to succeed, whereas positive organizational cultures which embed inclusion and diversity were identified as the second top enabler.

Gender quotas and gender targets for women leaders were seen as the least helpful enablers supporting women’s careers. Yet we know from experience in other sectors that where targets have been set and are voluntary, they have been known to help increase women into senior positions. This was the case for getting women on to the boards of the FTSE 350 companies, as reported by the Hampton - Alexander Review, These companies have met a 33% voluntary target for women on boards.

By far, mentoring and coaching were identified by 50% of respondents as the most popular forms of support. Professional networks followed closely behind. Skills development, such as developing leadership skills and having personal development plans were also considered important for career development. 55% of respondents identified changing cultural mindsets and beliefs as important so that women as talent can be developed. 43% opted for finding ways to better educate and influence those recruiting to leadership positions (the gatekeepers).

In recognition of the importance of mentoring, PFW launched its pilot ‘Redefining Leadership’ Mentoring Programme in January 2020, which brings together mentors and mentees from a range of backgrounds and countries including France, Georgia, South Africa, Kenya, Seychelles, Belgium, Uganda, Georgia, Canada, US & UK.   This innovative approach combined with the use of technology and diversity of participants makes the mentoring scheme unique. It is the first international mentoring programme of its kind in public finance and its impact and benefits will be evaluated towards the end of the year. 

There should be no doubt that mainstreaming gender equality in public financial management is critical for providing an equal playing field for both women and men. It is not about ‘fixing the women’. As the results of the survey suggest, the focus should be on changing cultures and mindsets and addressing areas that constitute specific barriers to equality treatment, such as unconscious bias and biased recruitment and promotion processes. Whilst the survey also highlighted that the direction of travel is positive, there is still much further to go if we are to wipe out gender discrimination in public finance completely.  It’s about time that we called time on gender inequality in public financial management!

Public Finance by Women (PFW) is a new global organization established to promote gender equality in public services, specifically in the area of public finance, and to support women during their careers by providing mentoring and other support services to them.

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