Women have transformed the federal Canadian public service and female public servants have sometimes been the few or only female voices at the table in decision-making about male-dominated sectors over the last 25 years, says a new report from Carleton University.
Female public service leaders have identified a newer, less hierarchical and more inclusive leadership style as their major contribution, but this style is not fully supported by a public service that has not significantly changed in structure in 100 years. This style is absent altogether in some areas, such as the RCMP and the Canadian Forces, where women do not form a significant number of leaders.
The study by Dr. Marika Morris, Carleton Canadian Studies adjunct research professor, is based on in-depth interviews with 26 executives and deputy ministers and equivalent level managers in 2014 to 2015. It’s the only known study of its kind.
Canada is ranked number one in the world in terms of women’s representation in public service leadership, including 46 per cent at the executive level and about a third of deputy ministers and equivalents.
Open and merit-based hiring processes
“Where hiring is based on open, merit-based processes, women do well,” says the report, entitled Women’s Leadership Matters: The Impact of Women’s Leadership in the Canadian Federal Public Service, “When hiring is based on appointment at the prime minister’s pleasure, such as the deputy minister level, women and other employment equity groups do not do as well.”
The study was initiated as Canada’s contribution to the Wilson’s Centre Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Women in Public Service Project initiated by Hilary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. Most of the world is trying to figure out how to get more women into their public services, particularly at leadership levels. Canada’s task was to explore the question: “Now that women are in, what difference does it make?”
“All the research participants agreed that public servants can and do make a difference,” said Morris. “Having diversity around the table, including gender, racial, ethnocultural and linguistic minority group members, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and those from the regions, as well as people from both policy and operational backgrounds, contributes to better, more inclusive and effective policy, programs and interactions with Canadians. Diversity itself is not enough. It has to be respected and supported.”
“This report is important because it demonstrates the value and importance of bringing women in all of their diversity to the table,” said Clare Beckton, executive director of Carleton’s Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership which published the report. “It is the first study to examine the impact of women in the public service.”
Recommendations to the federal government
The report makes a number of recommendations to the federal government, including:
- Greater support for a more modern, less hierarchical form of leadership, what the academic literature refers to as “women’s leadership style.”
- Re-examine the process of appointing by Governor-in-Council to ensure that criteria being used are not disadvantaging women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups.
- Promote an inclusive workplace culture in the pockets of the public service where it has not yet taken root.
- Reinstate and modernize past successful programs or develop new leadership development programs to build and strengthen human leadership capacity in the public service.
- Reduce fear in the public service by developing an approach to taking calculated risks and making mistakes.
- Play a greater role to help other countries and other workplaces improve gender, diversity and inclusion practices.
The report is available in both English and French.
About the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership:
The Carleton centre promotes equitable representation of women in democratic institutions at all levels of government and in all positions of leadership within the public, private and non-profit sectors. This non-partisan centre works to strengthen public leadership by providing outstanding education, training, dialogue and research. The centre works with a wide range of partners to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life, in Canada and internationally.
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