Women in Bureaucracy

Is There a Need to Challenge the Status Quo?

Representation of Women in Senior Leadership Positions in the Bureaucracy

As countries try to achieve gender parity in various public and private spheres of life to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ensuring equal opportunity for women leadership in various political, economic and public decision-making roles will require a concerted effort (see the large Global Gender Gap index in women’s participation in leadership positions in the WEF 2017 report). After the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 underscored the importance of women leadership for women’s empowerment, the private and political spheres received significant attention from international and national players to advance the role of women in these sectors. However, the public administration sector has remained on the sidelines. A recent UNDP report directs attention to this issue: it highlights that female leadership in the public administration sector continues to remain severely restricted in many developing countries (see Figure 1.1). Pakistan too has not fared well.

Figure 1.1- Across the World: Female representation in senior leadership in bureaucracy

Source- Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders recently developed by Ernst & Young

With the introduction of a 10% quota for women in the civil services in Pakistan, female recruitment in the bureaucracy increased from a mere 9% in 2000 to 20% in 2007, which again more than doubled to about 45% in 2017. While these numbers provide an optimistic picture, a detailed analysis reveals that female representation continues to remain stagnant in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy. According to a 2017 UNDP Pakistan report on Gender Equality in Public Administration, at the entry level 28.5 % of officers serving in the PAS are women; this thins out to 6.6% at BPS 33. Another report by the Pakistan Public Administration Research Centre shows that a major bulk of women in the civil services are concentrated below Grade 17, comprising female teachers and nurses which are traditionally considered as more feminized professions.

Figure 1.2- Pakistan: Female representation in senior leadership in bureaucracy

Source- Gender Equality in Public Administration, 2017 (UNDP)

But is there a need to move beyond concerns of equal representation and care about female leadership in the public administration sector? The bureaucracy is a fundamental input into the social fabric of a society. It is where much of policy is made and implemented with real implications for the citizens of a state. The public administration literature argues that a ‘representative bureaucracy’ which includes a reasonable cross-section of society including different class, ethnicity, gender, and geography is important for representing interests of different factions of society. Where interests of women are concerned, translating such ‘passive’ representation into ‘active’ representation (i.e. with real influences on policymaking and implementation) requires women in decision-making roles.

Therefore, moving beyond normative concerns of equal opportunity, female leadership in the bureaucracy has implications for the political and economic opportunities for women in a country. The public administration sector is likely to become more “democratised” with women in leadership positions as they are more likely to implement inclusive policies, and bring key policy areas such as family planning, neo-natal and post-natal health, child support programs, and family leave legislation to the fore-front. A study from the United States is perhaps instructive here. It shows that having women in leadership positions in child support state agencies leads to more collections for female citizens asking for child support. In addition to such impacts on service delivery, women leadership positions in a highly gendered institution such as the bureaucracy are likely to change behaviours and attitudes within the organisation. Women’s inclusivity in the civil service can lead to the adoption of a multitude of administrative styles such as being more collaborative, inclusive, cooperative and working towards adopting more female friendly attitudes in the workplace, and consequently a more gender balanced employment policy. In addition, women in leadership positions are likely to adopt female centric behaviours which may in-turn produce an important ‘role-modelling effect’ whereby more women become likely to join the bureaucracy based on the understanding that the organisation will be more inclusive and understanding of women’s day to day concerns. Finally, while political positions of power can often mean no gender mandate if women enter through a dynastic channel and have to serve the interests of their family, decision-making roles in the bureaucracy can be subject to relatively less pressure, enabling women to carve out a space where pro-women policies can be implemented.

Two real life examples from close to home illustrate these points further. Aruna Sundararajan, a Kerala-based cadre IAS officer described by the Forbes magazine as ‘an IAS officer who thinks like a businesswoman’ is widely known for her role in the state’s e-governance programme during her tenure as the IT secretary. However, another impressive project to her credit is Kudumbashree- a female-oriented, community-based, poverty reduction project – which she both headed and expanded. Another example is, Vimla Mehra, the first woman special commissioner police in India. She introduced a series of female-centric reforms during her tenure such as various courses targeted to women inmates, police-run self-defence training for women, and the launch of the first-ever women-only helpline. Such examples demonstrate the kind of space women in senior roles within the bureaucracy might be able to create to serve the interests of female citizens, which may otherwise remain ignored.

Despite such benefits, the public administration sector in many developing countries (including Pakistan) remains patriarchal. Majority of women continue to face ‘glass ceilings’ and remain concentrated in lower/non-managerial positions. In addition, they remain clustered in less prestigious, ‘feminised’ or ‘soft’ sectors such as health or education while men dominate sectors such as finance and planning. Even within the context of Pakistan, such sectoral segregations (also called ‘glass walls’) are common. Upward mobility is hard since important posts like secretary interior, secretary of commerce and secretary finance are mostly restricted to male civil servants. According to several other studies conducted in Pakistan, career advancement for women is also limited due to lack of opportunities for informal networking, which is an important means through which advances in careers can be achieved. Given societal norms restrict women from socialising with men outside of the office, they are much less likely to have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts. In addition, male civil servants have strong preconceived notions about the ability of married women to make a progression in their careers. Apart from the culture that prevails within the organisation, women also face limitations due to their role as mothers and wives. The public administration sector in Pakistan rarely offers benefits such as child friendly offices, day cares, and extended maternity leaves. Hence, women who have children are forced to maintain a balance between their household chores and their jobs. To maintain this balance, women often have to give up on spending extra time in the office as compared to their male colleagues, which makes them less useful resources for the department to invest in. Due to such limitations, they are also less likely to receive the same opportunities and trainings as their male counterparts. Finally, the lack of strong anti-sexual harassment policies can also shape female behaviour and career advancement in important ways. For example, an in-depth research on women in state agencies in the United States highlights that many women face sexual harassment at the workplace and feel that these experiences effect their “work style, self-perception and ability to perform certain job functions such as managing conflict and organising coalitions”.

As overall female labour force participation grows and their representation in the public administration sector becomes more equitable, measures will have to be taken to translate female passive representation into active representation. If the status quo remains, a huge potential and opportunity for women empowerment may be lost. As critical next steps, there is a need for countries to embed a tracking mechanism to consistently monitor the progress of women leadership in the sector, try to further unbundle cultural and societal constraints to glass ceilings and glass walls in order to design targeted measures to address them, and finally conduct priority- setting exercises on national and provincial levels which can lead to affirmative action plans. A starting point for such action plans could be giving special preference to female applicants in sectors where females have been particularly discriminated against; stronger anti-discrimination laws to punish any form of discrimination against women within the bureaucracy; greater gender sensitisation ranging from sensitivity trainings to the inclusion of awareness about family duties and child rearing in the recruitment rules of the organisation; and establishing female networks similar to male-dominated networks that already exist as a way to provide a safe space for women to interact with other females in the profession.

Co-written by Maham Nasir, Research Assistant at Lahore University of Management Sciences.


Zahra Mansoor

Doctoral Candidate of Public Policy at Oxford University.