Gender equality is both an essential development goal in its own right and a driver of human development. International law recognizes that everyone has a right to participate in public life, but it remains an ongoing challenge to achieve women’s equal participation, especially in decision-making. The importance of advancing women’s leadership in politics has continued to gain traction. Although much remains to be done, advances are being made slowly but surely. Unfortunately, less attention and support has been given to promoting women’s leadership in public administration.
Public administration is the bedrock of government and the central instrument through which national policies and programmes are implemented. In an ideal world, public administration is guided by principles of fairness, accountability, justice, equality and non-discrimination, and serves as a model of governance for society which includes the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the civil service workforce.
However, globally, this is not yet the reality. Instead of being a driving force behind the implementation of internationally-agreed goals on gender equality and human rights standards and principles, in many developed and developing countries, public administration often remains a patriarchal institution, perpetuating gender biased traditions, attitudes and practices. Women do not yet participate equally in public administration, especially in leadership and decision-making roles.
The target of a minimum of 30 percent of women in leadership positions, originally endorsed by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1990 and reaffirmed in the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995,1 is being approached in many public administrations and even surpassed in some. Nevertheless, while progress is being made in terms of total numbers of women in public administration, both glass ceilings and glass walls continue to present challenges to women’s equal participation in decision-making positions.
A fundamental argument for increased representation of women in public service is that when the composition of the public sector reflects the composition of the society it serves, government will be more responsive and effective. Thus, closing gender gaps in public administration is important to ensuring truly inclusive development and democratic governance and helps to restore trust and confidence in public institutions and enhance the sustainability and responsiveness of public policies.2 It is a critical policy issue in both developing and developed countries.3
Women’s equal participation in public administration and decision-making and can also be viewed as a necessary condition for women’s interests to be fully taken into account and properly addressed. According to the 2011 Human Development Report,4 analysis shows how power imbalances and gender inequalities at the national level are linked to unequal access to clean water and better sanitation, impacts on land degradation, etc.
Without a critical mass of women, public administration is not tapping into the full potential of a country’s workforce, capacity and creativity. Women generally represent more than half of the population. As public administration is an important employer in many countries (and in certain cases may be the only available or ‘acceptable’ employment opportunity for women) equal participation in public administration can have a significant impact on women’s economic empowerment.
Compelling cases have been made that greater equality and gender parity in managerial and leadership positions in politics as well as the private sector leads to superior competitiveness due to higher performance and productivity. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013 explains how crucial it is for the competitiveness of countries and companies to develop, attract and retain the best talents, both male and female.5
To date, governance reform programmes most often have prioritized other important gender equality issues - notably women’s participation in the political arena - and have tracked the status of women in political leadership positions and encouraged policies and practices that promote women’s access to services. As far back as 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women urged the international community to improve knowledge gathering on women in politics and to make better use of databases and methodologies to follow women’s involvement in decision-making. The same level of attention has not been paid to women in public administration; and unlike women’s political participation, no global tracking mechanism exists for women’s participation and leadership in public administration. The qualitative and quantitative data that does exist suggests there remains ample room for progress in gender equality in public administration.
Barriers to women’s advancement in public administration undermine the fundamental principles of equal opportunity and social justice in society as a whole. Multiple strategies must be developed to break these barriers down, and garner ongoing support and commitment from all stakeholders. Changing institutional and societal cultures, including attitudes of men and women that hamper progress in gender parity, is a difficult but essential task.
Given the complexities of and inter-linkages between the barriers faced by women and governments in addressing this issue, there is a corresponding need for comprehensive, multi-stakeholder and long-term approaches to sustainably attain women’s equality in public administration and, in particular, their participation in decision-making. Any endeavors to bring about change must also address underlying systemic discrimination against women, gender bias (conscious or unconscious) and stereotypes that influence mindsets within public administration, in public life and in society generally.
It is understood that gender equality and women’s empowerment benefits not only women but also their families, communities and countries/territories. Gender empowerment within public administration likewise not only benefits women, but the entire civil service and society as a whole. Highlighting the rights of women alongside the benefits that women’s equal participation and leadership brings to public administration is therefore an important course to be taken.
As the majority of current decision makers are male, men must be encouraged and capacitated to become more involved in equal representation issues, forming a cadre of advocates for gender equality and gender parity in public administration from both sexes. It is critical that advocacy and awareness-raising efforts specifically include and target male staff and leaders within public administration and beyond.
Globally, much progress has been made in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, much remains to be done, including within public administration. Sustained political will and prioritization on national, regional and global scales is required. With persistent efforts and investments over time, realizing women’s equal participation and leadership in public administration can become a global reality. Individual women, their families and communities, as well as public administration and their countries will all reap the benefits.