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26 April 2018

Women leaders – perceptions and reality

Zamila Bunglawala, Deputy Director, Strategy and Insight, Race Disparity Unit at the Cabinet Office

The Civil Service has come a long way, but we have still not had a female Cabinet Secretary, so there is still work to do.

Zamila Bunglawala
Zamila Bunglawala

Now is the time to be talking openly, honestly and collaboratively about women leaders, and what we can all do – men and women – to ensure the challenges facing current and future generations of women leaders are tackled effectively and overcome.

I was delighted to be invited recently to participate in a panel and interactive audience discussion at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership led by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, with The Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner, and Joanna Ludlam, Partner at international law firm Baker McKenzie.

My background is in policy – for the British Government, the United Nations and leading think tanks. My current team, the Race Disparity Audit in Cabinet Office is wonderfully unique in many ways – not least because the Prime Minister commissioned us to develop the world's first government website highlighting disparities across ethnic groups. It is also unprecedented in transparency, scope and scale but also because, as a team of data, digital and policy experts, we are mostly women. We are led by an amazing and inspiring male director who champions the whole team and invites us to challenge him and the status quo – all the time.

The wider Civil Service has come a long way in recent years, thanks to the strong leadership and support of the current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. The top team of senior civil servants like me is 43% female – the highest ever. Over one-quarter of Permanent Secretaries are women. As yet, the UK has not had a female Cabinet Secretary, so there is still work to do.


From left to right: Katharine Viner, Zamila Bunglawala, Julia Gillard and Joanna Ludlam
From left to right: Katharine Viner, Zamila Bunglawala, Julia Gillard and Joanna Ludlam

From left to right: Katharine Viner, Zamila Bunglawala, Julia Gillard and Joanna Ludlam

Having worked in the UN for two years very early in my career, in the desert of Darfur and the mountains of Nepal, I was highly accustomed to constantly being challenged by my seniors and challenging myself to answer key questions such as, ‘Where are the women leaders in this programme?’, ‘How much of this funding will benefit women in education and leadership?’ and ‘What are the strategic outcomes here for women?’

What surprised me greatly was that, when I returned home to the UK, none of my senior leaders ever asked me these questions in my strategic policy roles. Do we somehow feel in the global north that we have achieved gender parity? Yes, we have among the best equality laws in the world, but that does not mean we have the greatest outcomes for women or the highest numbers of women leaders across sectors.

Whenever I would ask ‘Why not women?’, the response would invariably be ‘Look at the Scandinavian model’, where there is greater parity through impressive targets for women leaders in employment and progression. When I did so, I learned that, despite the targets, they also have low paternity leave take-up.

As a proud ethnic and faith minority member of the UK Senior Civil Service, I feel the need to highlight also the importance of intersectionality and the reality that women from minority groups can face additional challenges in access, progression and being recognised in leadership roles. Sadly, I am still too often mistaken for the personal assistant, in various settings, no doubt because of my name and the colour of my skin, in addition to my gender.

We have, therefore, not yet fully leapt from putting in place the right legislation to actually changing behaviours, to achieve better outcomes for women. What we want is regular open dialogue to help inform policy, programmes and funding decisions on this key issue of women leaders. This suggests the limits of laws in the global north, whereas, in the global south, often in the absence of laws, many countries are progressing organically to achieve gender parity, greater women’s leadership and women are almost always ‘on the agenda’.

In the UK we are currently experiencing a much-needed debate on gender pay, thrust forward due to legislation mandating large employers to publish their pay data.  A lot of media reporting of this issue focused on ‘what women now need to do’ to secure pay bonuses or promotion, which is practical advice and necessary steps forward women can take. However, sadly, from what I have seen, there is much less focus on what men should do or how they might step up to show leadership, commitment and collaborate with women to address pay and other challenges. 

It was also surprising to me to learn that in some companies with the highest pay gaps, women had previously cited their employers as being ‘female friendly’, leading me to question what we are measuring, what perceptions we have and what goals we are aspiring to.

All of these issues highlight that we still need to change perceptions and, above all, challenge behaviours: to ensure greater data transparency and accountability; increase understanding of the reality of women’s leadership and delivery of progressive outcomes for women leaders; and, crucially, what male leaders need to do to support this positive change.


We rightly should ask, Why did it require legislation for us to talk openly about the gender pay gap? We all need to ‘call out’ bias and challenge behaviour that is inappropriate and discriminatory. So, as Julia Gillard kindly suggested: ‘Channel your inner Zamila’ – and call it out!

We need to move forward together if we are to encourage, inspire and support current and future generations of women leaders, which will benefit all in society, not just women. I look forward to the continuing work of the Global Women’s Leadership Institute in facilitating discussions, challenging leaders, and changing perceptions and outcomes for the better, for us all.