Leveling the playing field for women accessing senior posts in public finance

1 Apr 20

Co-founder of Public Finance by Women Gillian Fawcett outlines 10 recommendations for organisations and individuals to follow to work towards achieving gender balance in the senior positions, following a roundtable discussion of high-level staff in public sector finance.


In response to a Public Finance by Women survey on gender equality, of the 107 respondents from 22 countries, 69% indicated they had experienced some form of gender discrimination during their careers.

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

In OECD countries the gender pay gap has reduced over a decade, but in most countries men are still paid 15% more than women.

While European Central Bank currently has a female CEO, out of 23 members on the governing board only 2 others are women. In the UK there has never been a female cabinet secretary, governor of the Bank of England or Chancellor of the Exchequer.

“Culture and behaviours need to positively change if we are to encourage more women into senior positions”

A new style of leadership is required

Roundtable participants generally felt that organisations need to recognise the importance of more diversity at the top and see it as a business issue. They need to focus on and identify the root causes and blockages preventing women from succeeding.

Research evidence shows that more than 85% of chief executives whose companies have a formal strategy on diversity and inclusion say it has improved their bottom line, while at the same time enhancing innovation, collaboration, customer satisfaction and talent attraction.

Both culture and behaviours need to positively change if we are to encourage more women into senior positions. A roundtable participant asked the fundamental question about how we change the culture so that it is different and inclusive and so that there is high acceptance of the individual irrespective of gender, ethnicity or social background.

Participants agreed that this must begin with embedding a style of leadership. One of the biggest leadership adjustments that needs to be made by leaders relates to them being more in tune with diversity and equality.

A redefined leader will adjust her or his leadership style so as to accommodate a variety of experiences and challenges, and give priority to ‘quality’and ‘equality’ of thinking by individuals. A redefined leader will inspire and motivate diverse teams so that they flourish and create organisational environments that recognise that the quality of everything we do begins with the quality of thinking and how we treat each other equally.

The redefined leader will have no sense of personal ‘entitlement’ and will be a facilitator, influencer, innovator and collaborator. In keeping with this this vision of a new style of leadership, PFW has included re-defining leadership as the cornerstone of its mentoring programme. The approach is strongly focused on equipping women with the skills to become the fresh thinking leaders of the future.

Advancing gender equality in public finance

The Hampton-Alexander Review, an independent, business-led initiative supported by the UK government, recently reported that the voluntary target of 33% for women on FTSE 350 boards had been achieved. In comparison, the percentage of women on boards in English NHS foundation trust hospitals is largely 50:50. While there has been significant progress made in English NHS foundation trust hospitals over the years, this has been driven by policy interventions.

But this is not the case for other parts of the public sector within the UK or other parts of the world.

The Hampton-Alexander review of women on executive teams highlighted that when it came to functional roles such as directors of finance, the proportion of women to men was very low. Only 15% of directors of finance were women.

Parts of the public sector fare better, with 21% of directors of finance in London boroughs being women and 30% in London NHSAcute Trusts. But even so, this falls short of full gender balance.

Clearly, in both the public and private sectors further action is needed to address the gender imbalance.

In response to the PFW survey, 59% 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. It is only when we have this data that we will be better placed to understand the root causes of inequality and find new solutions.

Transferability of private sector approaches to the public sector to increase the number of women in senior positions

The Hampton-Alexander review set voluntary targets and worked alongside the FTSE 350 companies to increase the numbers of women on boards. While this initiative has been largely successful, participants attending the roundtable were less supportive of targets and/or quotas to bring about an equal gender balance. Their views were consistent with the PFW survey results – respondents viewed gender quotas and gender targets for women leaders as the least helpful enablers supporting women’s careers.


Roundtable participants strongly believed that women should rise to senior positions because of their skills and abilities, not because of their gender. Also, the problem with targets is that they can distract attention away from the need to focus on what really matters and encourage an approach that concentrates excessively on bureaucratic measurement and management.

The Hampton-Alexander experience was that progress towards the targets spiked in the first year, but subsequently levelled off in the following years. More interventions were required to sustain progress and for the whole process not to feel like a compliance exercise.

Top factors preventing women reaching senior positions

There was general consensus among participants attending the roundtable that women continue to be overlooked for top positions. Key barriers highlighted included inflexible working practices, particularly when returning to work following a temporary break because of childcare and/or arranging elderly care.

It was pointed out by a participant that there are very few part-time positions or job share arrangements at senior levels in public sector finance, yet there are clear benefits in terms of organisational performance and accessing a wider talent pool.

Similarly, there is a ‘long hours’ bias at the top of most organisations. This is particularly expected in senior positions.


Organisations often associate the long hours culture with effectiveness. This culture disadvantages women who have childcare and/or elderly parent responsibilities. It is clear that traditional structures, roles and workplace cultures need to change in order to support the goal of encouraging women to reach senior positions in greater numbers.

A roundtable participant said women were less confident then men about negotiating their salaries. When a man is appointed to a senior post, he is more likely to negotiate for a higher salary, whereas a woman will set her bar lower. The higher the career ladder one climbs, the more one’s salary can be expected to change, but it is also at this level that women fall away. In the words of the participant: “Often, women don’t feel confident negotiating salary, and this is where some additional support and guidance could be useful for aspiring female leaders.”


  • Organisations and individuals need to take responsibility for equipping future leaders (women and men) with the necessary skills to respect and promote the causes of diversity and equality
  • Leadership needs to be redefined so that those at the top adapt their leadership styles to a variety of experiences and challenges, and adopt a new focus on the quality of thinking by individuals and a commitment to equality
  • Organisations should nurture future leaders who have no sense of personal entitlement and are facilitators, influencers, innovators and collaborators
  • Gathering comprehensive data about the advancement of gender equality in public finance should be a priority, as it is only when we have this data that we will be better placed to understand the root causes of inequality and to find new solutions
  • Organisations need to work collaboratively to address gender equality in public finance. This should bring together schools, universities, the accountancy profession and public bodies in a concerted effort to bring about change
  • Targets and quotas are not the solution for helping women into senior positions. Developing skills and experience should be key drivers in organisational planning for making senior appointments. When recruiting, organisations should also reach out to as wide a talent pool as possible
  • Organisations should recognise that the review and adaptation of organisational structures and roles has the potential to achieve clear benefits, in terms of improved performance and attraction of talent. More creative and flexible senior structures should be designed, including new ways of working, job shares and flexible and part-time working
  • Organisations should discourage a ‘long hours’culture in relation to senior positions. This disadvantages women who have childcare and/or elderly parent responsibilities
  • Aspiring female leaders should be provided with support and training so that they are more confident in particular areas, such as salary negotiations; more generally, training should be provided to raise awareness about the consequences of unconscious bias in the workplace
  • Organisations should review their recruitment, selection and promotion processes for potential bias.

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