Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Women's National Commission (PAP 55)


  The Women's National Commission (WNC) is the official independent advisory body to Government on the views of women.

  We welcome this inquiry. It is crucial that people from different sections of society have an equal opportunity to serve in public life. Account must be taken of women's experiences, requirements and perspective, which may be different from men's. These must not be hidden or excluded from decisions and agendas. Greater numbers of women now realise that they have much to offer in public life—and that public life has much to offer them. The public appointments system must support them in entering public life.

  One of WNC's key priorities is to increase the number of women in decision making in public life. The Government has set a target to recruit women into 50% of national level public appointments. These are key decision making roles. In order to help increase the number of women who hold national public appointments the WNC is setting up an e-network and mentoring programme. We offer:

    —  Regular e-mail postings of new national public appointment opportunities;

    —  Access to occasional workshops focused on a variety of relevant issues such as: improving or updating CV's; refining interview skills and also presentations from selection panel speakers;

    —  Matching of mentees with a mentor;

    —  Access to start up seminars which will provide good practice guidelines;

    —  Facilitation and advice for mentor and mentee pairings.


  The following information and views are based on a collation of views expressed by our partners. These include women's organisations, trade unions, pressure groups, and individual experts from across the UK who together represent several million women. A number of our partners are women who are seeking public appointments. The concerns expressed by some of these women could be summarised in four main categories:

    —  Advertisements;

    —  Application forms;

    —  Skills requirements;

    —  Selection process.

  This response therefore focuses largely on questions 13-18 in the PASC questionnaire, and offers comments particularly from the perspective of women, including minority women.


  The WNC believes that equality in public life cannot be achieved unless we encourage women from all different areas and sectors of society to make a contribution to public life. This means that outreach work to raise awareness beyond "the usual suspects" is essential.

  At present, public bodies rely on informal networks developed over a number of years to attract candidates, and these networks consist overwhelmingly of white, middle class men. We should like to see more resources invested in the wider advertising of opportunities, and a long term strategy developed to attract, recruit, and retain, applicants from a much wider pool that truly reflects the make up of society. This would mean 50% of the posts going to women and a pro rata percentage of minority ethnic and disabled candidates.

  Public bodies should ensure that they publicise their childcare and eldercare policies in their recruitment publicity. Appointments should routinely attract an appropriate fee; otherwise only candidates of independent means will be able to apply. These arguments were accepted more than a century ago in respect of members of parliament—now is surely the time for them to be accepted for other sorts of public office. Until they are, public appointees will continue to be drawn from an elite who can afford to give pro bono service.

  It is important that adverts for posts on public bodies are widely published in both the broad sheet and the tabloid press, as well as local press, women's magazines and those aimed specifically at minority groups such as ethnic groups, faith groups and lesbians. Our partners would also like to see a central point on the Internet for these appointments to make online access to information easier. This would broaden the range of people who might consider participating in public life.

  Frequently, however, advertisements can pose a barrier for women in particular. Use of the term "chairman" implies that the incumbent will be a man, sending out the opposite signals to those we want to give.

  Equally, advertisements that call for applications from people who have "broad experience" or people who have held "senior positions" can exclude women, who may find it difficult to demonstrate broad experience in a particular profession, or who may not have held senior positions, but who may have all the relevant skills, understanding and competence. These may have been developed, for example, in voluntary organisations; in running a home, or in community activities. Specifying the preferred source of experience, rather than the competence itself deters and excludes women.

  Equality statements in adverts, while welcome, need to be carried through in more concrete ways if they are not to be viewed cynically as paying lip service to diversity. Applicants should be sent material that demonstrates the organisation's commitment to attracting and welcoming diverse appointees. If all the recruitment material shows white men exclusively, or refers to all candidates as "he", or is clearly written to attract a limited group, minority applicants will be discouraged.


  Application forms are often unnecessarily technical and complicated. Applications that take this form are far less attractive and accessible to possible applicants.


  Very often, women's skills and experience may not be recognised through the selection process. Skills required are frequently described from a male perspective that ignores or excludes the contribution that women may be able to make to public life.

  Recognition of non-traditional career patterns and a commitment to fair selection procedures are crucial for women. Relevant experience gained through unpaid work is as valid as that earned in a traditional paid career. Women who have been out of paid employment are likely to have developed a range of skills as a result of running a home, raising children, or caring for sick or elderly relatives. These skills might include managing a budget, time management, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

  Information about voluntary work and working in the community should be specifically mentioned and requested via application forms. Equally, experience of working with other people, fundraising, managing teams of volunteers, arranging public events, public speaking, and negotiating access to public services—either as a user or an informal adviser—can all be relevant. Experience as a user of services is also valuable, particularly for some of the appointments to consumer bodies.


  The work of the Commissioner should be even more widely known outside Westminster. The Commissioner does a great deal to support the drive to appoint candidates from a wider pool and her role needs to be better known to the public. Resources need to be earmarked for this outreach activity.


  Women applicants have serious and long standing complaints about the transparency and ease of the current selection system, which could appear to be designed to serve bureaucrats, rather than the applicants, who are not defined as customers. Throughout the process, they are not given information about progress; anecdotally, we were told about instances of applicants hearing nothing for months and then receiving a letter of rejection. One well-qualified candidate told us she had been approached and invited to apply, only to receive a letter of rejection months later, with no feedback or explanation.

  The process needs to be reengineered to ensure that applicants are treated as valuable, rather than expendable, parts of the process. Applicants must be given clear information at each stage, with explanations for any delay and a contact point for queries. Many women have indicated to us that they are unwilling to make any further applications following this kind of experience.

  All selection panels should include at least one woman.

Women's National Commission

20 May 2002

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