Women shine as leaders, yet their absence at top levels of public service threatens pandemic recovery

By United Nations Development Programme

Women shine as leaders, yet their absence at top levels of public service threatens pandemic recovery

While a number of high-profile women leaders have been in the spotlight globally for their impactful COVID-19 response, women make up less than 1 in 3 of top leadership positions in public administration globally, according to new data by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Gender Inequality Research Lab (GIRL) at the University of Pittsburgh. Leaving women out of these critical decision-making roles and processes, including in COVID-19 efforts, is threatening an inclusive and green recovery from the pandemic.

The latest Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA) report, the first comprehensive in-depth research into the issue covering 170 countries, finds that persistent gaps remain and women continue to hit glass ceilings and glass walls that stop them from advancing to positions at the highest levels of power and influence. Though there’s been progress on women’s representation overall in public administration in many countries, women in all regions of the world are still significantly outnumbered by men in leadership and decision-making positions. On average women are 46 percent of public administrators, but hold only 31 percent of top leadership positions and comprise only 30 percent of senior managers.

Gender equality is essential for an inclusive and accountable public administration. When women take leadership roles in public administrations, governments are more responsive and more accountable and the quality of public services delivered significantly improves, according to research in the report. For example, data shows that when women are in power, overlooked policy issues, such as ending violence against women, childcare services, and healthcare, get more attention and there is often less government corruption and political parties are more likely to work together. As the COVID-19 crisis places unprecedented challenges on governments and their citizens, effective decision-making in public institutions and responsive and innovative public services are more important than ever.

This new data comes as many countries continue to grapple with the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and its staggering economic and social impacts on women and girls, from an alarming rise in violence against women and girls to a large loss of jobs and income, which are threatening to set back progress on gender equality. Up to 105 million additional women and girls, who are already overrepresented among the world’s extremely poor, could be pushed into poverty by 2030 because of the pandemic, according to UNDP analysis.

“COVID-19’s effects are not gender-neutral. It is therefore crucial that governments respond to the needs, rights, and expectations of women and girls. Women must also fully participate in public institutions and have a seat at the table when governments are crafting their policy responses and determining the best way forward from the crisis. The pivotal decisions being made today will affect the well-being of people and the planet for generations to come. Sustainable recovery is only possible when women are able to play a full role in shaping a post-COVID-19 world that works for all of us,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator. 

The GEPA report finds that women have a very limited role in health policy decision-making, including in countries’ COVID-19 response. While 58 percent of employees in health ministries are women, they average only 34 percent of decision-making positions.

Women’s representation is also low across COVID-19 government task forces, which are leading the pandemic response. Of the 300 national COVID-19 task forces examined in 163 countries and territories, women makeup on average 27 percent of the positions and lead 18 percent of task forces. Only 6 percent of COVID-19 task forces are at gender parity, while shockingly nearly double that, 11 percent, have no women at all.

The report also finds that women in public administration are being siloed into certain areas of policy work, hitting ‘glass walls’ in addition to glass ceilings. Women’s numbers are highest in ministries focused on women’s issues, health, and education, but they remain low in other policymaking areas.

For example, despite women being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, women’s participation in environmental protection ministries is among the lowest of the 20 policy areas examined. It averages 33 percent globally, and parity in decision-making in environmental protection is rare, potentially hampering more effective climate action and green recovery. Similarly in the area of socio-economic policymaking, data reveals that women average just 36 percent of decision-making positions in economic ministries.

The outcome of a six-year collaboration, the report aims to improve the quality and accessibility of data on gender equality in public administration worldwide to enable evidence-based policy change.

“Gender equality and diversity are keys to improving government function and the quality of life for us all. Accomplishing that means that we need more and better data–and collaborations such as this one between the University of Pittsburgh and the United Nations can help us achieve that goal. This research partnership has generated important new information that not only highlights the problem but also provides the evidence needed to tackle these disparities,” said Ann E. Cudd, Provost, and Senior Vice-Chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh.

With women missing at the table and underrepresented in leadership positions across three critical areas of action – the health crisis, socioeconomic recovery, and climate – it is practically impossible to build forward better. As governments design and refine policies to adapt to the pandemic, UNDP and the University of Pittsburgh urge that they consider the gendered effects of the crisis and ensure women’s full and inclusive participation in public administration, including in decision-making and leadership roles.

The GEPA report provides five sets of recommendations to help shift the balance of power and shatter these glass ceilings and glass walls, including:

  1. Strengthening and pushing for new laws, frameworks, and policies such as quotas and temporary special measures and creating a national gender budget;
  2. Creating institutional change, including through workplace reform, inclusive human resources policies, and penalizing sexism and harassment at work;
  3. Improving the availability of quality data on gender equality and women in public administration;
  4. Leveraging and building new partnerships, such as those with non-governmental organizations and women’s movements and business partnerships; and
  5. Promoting synergies across the gender equality agenda, including through awareness-raising and supporting women’s education and preparedness for civil service careers.