Lack of Women in Public Administration Leadership Threatens COVID-19 Recovery

September 7, 2021

A new report by UNDP and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh finds women’s leadership is being undercut by glass ceilings and glass walls.

Women in public administration are still hitting a glass ceiling that stops them from advancing to the highest levels of leadership, as they make up less than 1 in 3 of top leadership positions globally, according to new a new global report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and researchers from the Gender Inequality Research Lab (GIRL) at the University of Pittsburgh. Leaving women out of these critical decision-making positions and processes, including in the COVID-19 recovery, could threaten a more inclusive recovery from the pandemic.

The latest Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA) report, which is co-authored by GIRL Co-Directors Müge Finkel and Melanie Hughes, along with UNDP gender specialist Joanna Hill, maps progress towards gender parity in the civil service across 170 countries. The report demonstrates that persistent gaps remain, and that at higher levels of power and influence, women’s numbers decline. While there’s been progress on women’s representation in public administration in many countries, women are still significantly outnumbered by men in leadership and decision-making positions in all regions of the world. Finkel, Hughes, and Hill find that, on average, women are 46 percent of public administrators, but hold only 31 percent of top leadership positions and make up only 30 percent of senior managers.

The report is the outcome of a six-year collaboration between UNDP and University of Pittsburgh Professors Melanie Hughes (Department of Sociology, Deitrich School of Arts and Sciences) and  Dr. Müge Finkel (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) who co-founded and co-direct the University of Pittsburgh Gender Inequality Research Lab (GIRL@Pitt). The collaboration has focused on improving the quality and accessibility of data and statistics on gender equality in public administration worldwide to enable evidenced-based recommendations to promote 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," says Ann E. Cudd, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh. "This research partnership has generated important new information that not only highlights the problem but also provides the evidence needed to tackle these disparities.”

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.[1] 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 fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and its staggering economic and social impacts on women and girls, which are threatening to set back progress on gender equality.

“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,” says Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator. “The pivotal decisions being made today will affect the well-being of people and planet for generations to come, and women must be able to play a full role in shaping a post-COVID-19 world that works for all of us.”

The GEPA report reveals that women are only playing a 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 31 percent of ministers of health and 34 percent of broader decision-making positions.

Women’s representation is even lower 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 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.

Though there have been a handful of high-profile women leaders recognized for their effective pandemic response, women and gender are often invisible from government COVID-19 strategies and policies, which could fuel an unequal recovery from the pandemic. The UNDP-UN Women COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, which analyzes government pandemic policies, shows that less than one in five countries, only 42 of the 219 examined, have a holistic gender-sensitive response with measures that cover women's economic security, unpaid care, and violence against women.

The report also shows that 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, averaging33 percent globally, potentially hampering more effective climate action and a green recovery.

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 pushing for new laws and policies such as quotas and temporary special measures, improving the availability of quality data, creating institutional change and workplace reform, leveraging partnerships and promoting synergies across the gender equality agenda.

Other key report findings:

  • Women in public administration are being siloed into certain areas of policy work, hitting ‘glass walls’ in addition to glass ceilings, which is restricting their influence on policymaking and effecting change.
    • Women are overrepresented in just two policy areas – women’s issues and health – and have reached gender parity in traditionally feminine areas of education, social issues and labour, and social security. Women remain underrepresented in the remaining 15 of 20 policy areas examined in the report.
    • These glass walls are also mirrored at decision-making levels, as the most progress has been seen in socio-cultural ministries, where women hold an average of 43 percent of decision-making posts. They average just 33 percent of these posts in infrastructure ministries, the lowest of the policy areas.
  • There is substantial variation in women’s participation across regions and countries.
    • Gender parity among public administrators is most common in Latin America and the Caribbean and least common in Central and Southern Asia.
    • On average, countries at higher levels of economic development have more women in the civil service.
    • Women’s participation in public administration in fragile and conflict-affected countries averages just 23 percent.

Note to editors:

  • The 2021 global GEPA report takes stock of progress towards gender equality in public administration. Its extensive findings draw upon the Gender Parity in Civil Service (Gen-PaCS), a new global cross-national dataset of data and statistics on public administration. The data were collected by a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, led by Professor of Sociology Melanie Hughes and Assistant Professor of International Development Muge Finkel, and PhD student Brianna Howell, with support from UNDP. The GIRL research team also collected data on women’s participation on and leadership of COVID-19 task forces and ultimately partnered with UNDP and UN-Women to expand and release the data through the UNDP-UN Women COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker.

[1] Research reviewed in the report. For example, Andrews, Rhys, and Karen Johnston Miller. 2013. “Representative Bureaucracy, Gender, and Policing: The Case of Domestic Violence Arrests in England.” Public Administration 91(4):998–1014; Riccucci, Norma M., and Gregg G. Van Ryzin. 2016. “Representative Bureaucracy: A Lever to Enhance Social Equity, Coproduction, and Democracy.” Public Administration Review 77(1):21–30; and UNDP. 2014. Gender Equality in Public Administration. New York, NY: UNDP.

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