Why should we release the potential of women leaders in the public sector?

The public sector is currently undergoing some of its most complex and difficult changes to date, in particular relating to the £95bn cuts over 5 years being made by Central Government. To illustrate what this means in a local context, for the Sheffield Teaching Hospital Foundation Trust this has translated to approximately £90m efficiency savings over three years and for Sheffield City Council this means £80m of saving in 2011/12 alone. At the same time new policy agendas are requiring a transformational change of culture, e.g. localism and big society, which both require public agencies to work in a very different way with local communities and the private sector. All of these changes are going to require public sector leaders to be more innovative, resourceful, engaging, skilful and efficient than ever with challenges ranging from large-scale workforce redundancies to building new partnerships with communities and the private sector. Phrases such as ‘more for less’ and ‘double spending’ are all emerging public sector language which reflects a new tough era of leadership. However, from adversity can also come creativity. In these times new leaders and new ideas can rise to the surface. In my experience there are signs that this complex environment could potentially lead to some really excellent outcomes, e.g. where the drive for efficiency is also forcing the public sector to engage more effectively with communities and to really unlock the assets which may have previously been ignored resulting in not only proven cost benefits but also better quality of life and services outcomes. To ensure that the public sector cuts do not simply result in an unsustainable, postcode lottery mix of low quality services run by whichever private sector company comes in at the cheapest price, public sector leaders across the board from the Civil Service to Local Government will need to be as skilled, multi-dimensional, entrepreneurial and innovative as some of the private sector’s greatest leaders. Linked to the need within the public sector around the development of more efficient well-rounded leadership is the current low proportionate levels of women rising to the leadership level in every aspect of the public sector, e.g. in Yorkshire and Humber there is only 1 woman out of 6 (17%) Chief Executives of the PCT Clusters and only 3 (14%) female Local Government Leaders out of 22. Nationally, in the 2010 UK general election, only 143 (22%) female MPs were elected out of 650. In the current cabinet only four of the 23 (17%) positions are held by women and only 22% of Local Authority Chief Executives are women. Women in business do not fare any better with only 14.6% of Board members in FTSE 100 companies’ boards being women. The 30% Club was set up in November 2010 to bring a better balance to boards and partnerships with the view that this will enable businesses to remain competitive in the future. A report by Société Générale suggests that 30% is the ‘magic number’ when the performance of a company increases due to a critical mass of women at a board level. So if the private sector is recognising the value of women in leadership, should the public sector be taking note? There are proven differences in terms of male and female constructs showing with an emphasis of the latter being around an ‘engaging’ style of leadership,(1) e.g. ‘concerned to take people with them’ . It is this engaging leadership style which predicts productivity, and morale, and wellbeing (2). The attributes of this style will become ever more important within a public sector which is set in an increasingly complex partnership environment managing public expectations, decreasing resources and wider societal issues such as the ageing population. There is both an ethical and efficiency argument for skilling up and supporting women to rise to the top. There is a need to offer women the chance to build up a toolkit of skills and knowledge and enable women to become stronger competitors with an increased credibility and confidence. This could potentially path the way for new approaches, innovations and partnerships across organisations and sectors! In conclusion there is clearly currently a lack of women in leadership positions within the public sector and a demonstrable need to redress that balance at this challenging time of change and within a context of needing a new leadership culture of engagement across the public sector and in building partnerships with communities and the private sector. Development opportunities for women need to be made more accessible to enable them to build the full set of skills and knowledge required to be strong competitors in the leadership market and this, combined with increased credibility, confidence and networks, will empower women to not only take up leadership positions but to change the culture and open up the system for women more widely and create a sustainable public sector which truly unlocks the full range of assets and resources within its workforce, partners and communities. Perhaps one day soon a 30% public sector club might emerge from the ether!

[1] Alimo-Metcalfe, B. (1995) An investigation of female and make constructs of leadership and empowerment. Women in Management Review, 10, 2, 3-8

[2] Alimo-Metcalfe, B. & Alban-Metcalfe, J. (2008). ‘Engaging leadership: Creating organisations that maximise the potential of their people’. London: CIPD.


One thought on “Why should we release the potential of women leaders in the public sector?

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