As complex global issues continue to impact international and domestic businesses, economies, industries, societies, cultures and individuals, diversity and inclusive leadership in the public sector is more important than ever and essential to future success. In mid-2016, EY surveyed 80 government and public sector leaders from a range of countries on diversity in their organizations. The results showed that executives are overwhelmingly in favor of diversity but that little is being done to support change.
Ninety-six percent of executives agreed that diversity of thought and experience will be key to navigating public sector changes. Yet, despite valuing diversity, many organizations are not addressing the lack of women in leadership roles in a way that will deliver necessary change. Indeed, the same survey showed 55% of leaders surveyed agreeing that women are the single-biggest underutilized pool of talent in the public sector today. This jarring discrepancy needs to be rectified if governments and public sector organizations are to tackle complex global issues successfully.
This year’s International Women’s Day carried the slogan #BeBoldForChange. Resonating with individuals and institutions alike, its message was a reminder that gender must be put firmly on the agenda. Diversity enables organizations to enhance their analysis and understanding of complex global issues. An inclusive, gender-diverse culture is crucial to creating resilient and forward-looking growth. Being bold for change is not about audacity so much as accountability. Organizations need to be more transparent and accountable about gender diversity, and this is an increasingly important issue to stakeholders. To ensure tangible changes, public sector organizations at board level need to address five disconnects hindering greater gender diversity:
- The reality disconnect: Public sector leaders assume the issue is nearly solved despite little progress within their own organizations. Forty-six percent of respondents say they have already achieved gender parity on their board (defined as 30%–40% women), and 15% believe they will achieve it within five years. Yet data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 shows that it will take until the next century — 2186, to be exact — to reach gender parity in both private and public sectors. To overcome this disconnect, organizations must set targets for boosting diversity, and tie them to performance appraisals.
- The data disconnect: Organizations don’t effectively measure how well women are progressing through the workforce and into senior leadership. Only 40% of government and public sector organizations surveyed say they have programs in place to formally measure their progress in improving gender diversity on their leadership team and less than one-quarter (23%) of organizations track the proportion of female applicants for leadership positions. Public sector organizations should collect a wide range of diversity data and report publicly on its progress. Employee surveys can also help to pinpoint specific problems and identify appropriate interventions.
- The pipeline disconnect: Organizations aren’t creating pipelines for future female leaders. More than 80% of government and public sector organizations say they need to change their approach to attracting, retaining and promoting female talent, while at the same time, 71% indicate that they are already effective at attracting female talent. To future-proof organizations for success and build resilient leadership, pipelines for future female leaders need to be in place.
- The perception disconnect: Men and women don’t see the issue of gender parity the same way. Almost two-thirds (64%) of women think government and public sector organizations should do more to attract, retain and promote women, compared with just over one-third (36%) of men. Additionally, although 43% of men believe that the public sector has become a more attractive career choice for women, just 23% of women share that view. To combat this, organizations may need to change perceptions of what makes an effective leader. Promotion and recruitment systems can help as they have evolved in ways that place greater weight on some characteristics in which women tend to be stronger than men.
- The progress disconnect: Different sectors agree on the value of diversity but are making uneven progress toward gender parity. Sixty percent of public sector leaders believe they do not have sufficient diversity on their leadership teams, compared with 38% in automotive and 44% in oil and gas organizations. Organizations should consider creating platforms to showcase and share knowledge, lessons learned and good practices on gender equality across departments and across sectors.
Women at all levels bring a wealth of value to teams, and this talent must be welcomed and sustained through mentoring, sponsorship, networking opportunities, flexible working policies and career options that help women balance work and personal responsibilities at different stages of their lives.
Leadership diversity demands flexibility from individuals. Future leaders must be firm in their goals, but flexible in their approach. They must believe in their potential, speak up, and be prepared to take some risks. Leaders of the future will also benefit from a breadth of experience. Transformative global forces are disrupting and reshaping our world. This creates a uniquely challenging environment in which governments operate. It is also the reason why it will take determined leaders and diverse leadership teams to navigate it.
Editor’s Note: The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.
About the author: George Atalla is EY Global Government & Public Sector’s Leader.
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