Where are the Women Leaders in Public Administration?

By Shireen Lateef

While the corporate sector has been subject to scrutiny on the dearth of women at senior and board levels, there is still silence, or at best only whispers, about women in the top echelons of the public sector.

Recently there has been an explosion of articles and reports on how gender diversity in the corporate world delivers better results and outcomes. A string of studies shows how more women in senior leadership and corporate boards translate into positive returns for the bottom line—increased profit, improved performance, better delivery of services, and better outcomes.

While the corporate sector has been subject to scrutiny on the dearth of women at senior and board levels, there is still silence, or at best only whispers, about women in the top echelons of the public sector.

Why is there scant attention to the “missing” women ministers and high ranking senior officials in the civil service in Asia? Is it due to higher expectations and standards set for the private sector? Perhaps it’s a reflection of the prevailing apathy toward the public sector. Or, maybe no one really cares about bureaucrats—male or female. Whatever the reason, the time is ripe for putting the public sector under the microscope.

According to UNDP’s 2014 Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA), public sector leadership still has a long way to go before it achieves gender parity. While women have been making inroads into leadership, women are still vastly outnumbered by men.

Although the public sector is often the largest national employer of women—anywhere between 15% and 40% of public administration— women occupy only 15% or less of decision-making positions, according to GEPA. Across the Asia and Pacific region, the civil service remains a bastion of male privilege—patriarchal institutions, perpetuating age-old gender-biased traditions, attitudes, values and practices. Be it “babus” in South Asia or “mandarins” in East Asia, historically and culturally the public institutions of the civil service remain “male zones” with virtually no space for women and certainly not at the top as leaders.

Perhaps this judgment is too harsh. After all, in many countries today the public sector is a major employer of women especially in the “feminized” sectors or “feminine spaces” of education, health, culture, tourism, social welfare – albeit with the ‘glass walls’ of sectoral segregation.  Yet, women remain scarce in leadership positions.

Ernst & Young’s Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders across the G20 major economies shows that while women comprise about 48% of the overall public sector workforce, they represent less than 20% of public sector leadership. Looking more closely at individual countries of Asia, the data are grim.

In Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, women make up 42% of the public sector workforce, but only 1.8% are leaders. Other Asian G-20 countries fare better, although they still hover around the bottom of the index of public sector female leaders: Indonesia 16.4%; India 14.8%; People’s Republic of China 9.1%; Republic of Korea 4.8%. Beyond the G-20 countries, women’s representation in the senior echelons of the public sector in Asia remains abysmal, with the female-to-male ratio ranging from a paltry .03 (Pakistan) to .9 (Philippines).

Evidence is now mounting that similar to the benefits women bring to the private sector, increasing the numbers of women in the public service, and in public administration leadership improves service delivery for all (including men), and promotes better governance and inclusive development.
In short, gender diversity in leadership affects the quality and integrity of work in the public sector. Leveraging women’s talents and leadership while harnessing the diversity of perspectives will generate better and more inclusive outcomes and more equitable access to economic and social opportunities. Closing the gender gap in public administration will also support increased attention to gender equality and women’s empowerment issues.

Recognizing the significant gaps in women’s leadership and the benefits of gender diversity in leadership, ADB launched in September its flagship Asia Women Leaders Program. The Program brought together 25 senior public sector women from 16 countries for a leadership training program. It provided participants with an opportunity for confidence building and peer exchanges on experiences, as well as to strengthen skills and discuss leadership strategies. It allowed them to reflect on how to navigate the leadership path and career ladder in a public bureaucracy; while understanding the connections between women’s leadership, gender gaps, and inclusive growth.

The program was co-hosted with the Korea Women’s Development Institute. Most of the 25 women participants were from middle level management positions although a few were from “top” positions. The participants openly shared their journeys reflecting on the obstacles and opportunities along the way, and how they confronted the challenges and “grabbed the breaks”. Balancing and juggling household and family responsibilities with work and careers surfaced as uppermost concerns.

The Program was resourced by a team of vibrant, dynamic and devoted women from across the region who recounted their personal experiences and journeys to leadership in the public, private and nongovernment sectors.

The region needs more inspiring women like these. They are the role models challenging the shackles of culture and tradition and leading the charge to gender equality. The Asia Women Leaders Program is ADB’s contribution to help produce more women leaders like them to fill the pipeline of Asian women leaders.