Canada has the highest proportion of women in its senior civil service – comprising the top five grades – of all G20 countries, at 51.1%. It has held the top spot since 2012, when data for the first Women Leaders Index was collected.
Yazmine Laroche retired from the Public Service of Canada in July 2022 after 35 years, having held a string of senior leadership roles, latterly as deputy minister of public service accessibility.
She says it is now an assumption that half of the public service’s senior leaders will be women – “how great is that” – but it hasn’t happened without a decades-long and concerted effort to make change from those at the very top.
Indeed, when Laroche joined the public service in the mid-1980s, the picture was a very different one. She and her female colleagues often endured casual sexism in the workplace and weren’t always taken seriously. “The senior ranks of the Public Service of Canada were overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, straight, and full of introverted policy wonks,” she says. “There was a definite type. And there really was a pressure to conform and to adapt to the culture and the norms of the institution.”
In her first executives meeting after being promoted to assistant deputy minister (the third highest rank in the public service), she recalls walking into a room with 40 people around a table and there being only one other woman. And the default was for men to answer the questions.
Laroche believes this environment meant the women who breached the upper echelons of the public service had imposter syndrome “which is to be expected when they aren’t enough of you”.
“There have been moments in my career where I definitely felt dismissed, not listened to – I had to learn to speak up and be more assertive,” she says.
But the bad treatment she sometimes experienced early on in her career spurred her on. “That was one of the things I worked really hard at – being the best I could be,” she explains. “I was so conscious of wanting to prove that even though I’m a woman, and even though I’m a woman with a disability [Laroche has a neuromuscular condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy], I’m really, really good at my job. I worked hard to demonstrate that I was competent and I was qualified. I put my hand up to ask for assignments, to take part in competitions, to show that I was interested and that I had something to contribute.”
And she was lucky to have some “brilliantly supportive” bosses over the years – most of whom were men – who saw her potential, took chances on her, advocated for her and helped steer her. “So, I’ve experienced both sides – the casual sexism and being underestimated and being championed too.”
As she progressed in her career, Laroche made sure she was that support to the talented people in her teams, opening the doors for others and working to break down barriers so they didn’t have to go through with she had.
The catalyst for change? ‘Two words: Jocelyne Bourgon’
Though examples of gender equality in the public service were rare in the 1980s, Laroche says leaders were starting to turn their attention to questions about organisational structure, who worked for them, whether there was a stereotypical public servant and whether they were excluding people. “That really started to accelerate in the ‘90s,” she says. And in her eyes, it was pivotal decade.
In our last Women Leaders Index, we interviewed Catherine Blewett, then deputy clerk of the Privy Council, associate secretary to the cabinet, and Canada’s most senior female civil servant. She put Canada’s achievement on reaching gender parity down to a range of measures including a reformed process for recruiting Governor Council appointees, introduced in 2016, a focus on offering flexibility to public servants with caregiving responsibilities – most of whom are women – and pay equity legislation.
Laroche agrees these made a difference but asked what she sees as the main catalyst for change, she says “two words: Jocelyne Bourgon”, referring to the woman who served as cabinet secretary and clerk of the Privy Council between 1994 and 1999.
Laroche describes Bourgon as a “brilliant woman and phenomenal leader” who recognised that the senior ranks of the public service were not representative of Canada and that there was a huge inequality when it came to women in senior leadership roles.
Under Bourgon’s direction two programmes were developed – the Accelerated Executive Development Program (AEDP) and the Assistant Deputy Minister Pre-Qualification Process (ADMPQP).
The AEDP allowed public servants in the first of five executive-level ranks to sign up for an intense series of assignments in various ministries and functions, behavioural analysis and interviews. Those that qualified would be promoted to a more senior executive level and were “very well positioned” Laroche says, to become assistant deputy ministers and from there, deputy ministers – the heads of departments.
“That programme was wound down in the late 2000s but it was an amazing launchpad for a lot of women who were able to put their hand up and say ‘I’d like to go for this’.”
The other programme, which Laroche herself graduated, was aimed at those in the middle of the executive ranks – director general roles – who wanted to become assistant deputy ministers. Similarly to the AEDP, the programme created a pool of qualified assistant deputy ministers from which deputy ministers could pick to fill vacancies. Candidates went through a “very rigorous screening process” involving interviews, latterly before a hiring board of the most senior deputy ministers.
“Those two programmes I think made a tremendous difference,” Laroche says. “I was not a likely candidate but all of a sudden I could put my hand up and other women did too. It was when those programmes were running that you started to see representation increase.”
As well as the AEXDP and the ADMPQP, Laroche also points to the Advanced Leadership Program, in which participating public servants were given access to senior leaders both inside and outside the public service and received leadership-focused learning opportunities including visits to public services abroad. Laroche, for example, was sent to India and Argentina.
“The programme was designed to take you out of the day-to-day of your working life and expose you to new ideas about leadership, to put you in new and sometimes uncomfortable situations, and to see how you came out of it. At the end you had to write a paper on what you’d learned from a leadership perspective,” she explains. “Virtually everyone in my cohort became a deputy minister and at least 50% of those were women.”
One takeaway from those programmes, she says, “is that it really does require the attention of the most senior people in the public service, and it needs to be deliberate and intentional – it’s not just going to happen because you wish it to. You need a supporting structure or mechanism. And you have to mobilise the entire apparatus”.
What began to happen 25 years ago – an increase of women in the senior ranks of the public service in response to a very deliberate effort to do so – “gave other women confidence”, Laroche says, “and over time it becomes normalised”.
No room for complacency
Once programmes and initiatives designed to make positive change have been implemented, what is needed, Laroche says, is to track progress, to hold people to account if standards are slipping, and to take action to address any regression immediately.
In Canada, there are annual talent management discussions during which senior executives drill down into the data to see how the public service is doing on gender parity and other metrics.
“Once you’ve got that critical mass, data and tracking is hugely important,” Laroche says. “Where do we have gaps and why? It is because we don’t have the internal candidates? If it is, what are we going to do about it? And where might there be gaps in five years’ time? We’re fortunate that we have very robust data [in Canada] but if you don’t have good data then how are you going to know how well you’re doing?”
What is important, she says, is to “always pay attention” to what’s happening – and doing so should come right from the top. Indeed, when Laroche became assistant deputy minister for executive policies and talent management in the late noughties, she recalls participating in meetings in which the cabinet secretary would ask “why are we falling down on women and what do we need to do to improve?”.
Looking back on what she and her colleagues have achieved, she says she is “incredibly proud” of Canada’s public service. “That isn’t to say it gets everything right, but we’ve come a long way and we’re always trying to be better”.
She highlights one of the areas in which “we aren’t there yet” – certain positions that have so far only been held by men. “I’m waiting for the first female deputy minister of the Department of Finance. I mean no disrespect to the men who have filled that role and have been amazing, but the fact is we still haven’t had a woman. And I do hear that from some of my former colleagues, that it sometimes feels like they’re not being put into the really tough jobs. The thing is, it isn’t just a numbers game, it’s about where those women are.”
This extends to diversity and inclusion more widely too. It is something Laroche paid much attention to in her last role as the public service’s accessibility lead. “You can have a representation target, but what you really need to look at is where those people are. Certainly, what we learned with people with disabilities is that they’re over-represented in administrative and clerical roles,” she explains.
She points to a new focus on fostering diversity and inclusion within the public service. “That’s great because it means we’re not just talking about women and automatically thinking, ‘well, that means white women’, it means the full diversity of women, and we should be looking at the full diversity of men too”. Her fear – and she talks about this extensively in Global Government Forum’s Leading Questions podcast – is that if civil and public services aren’t representative, they will become irrelevant. “That’s the risk,” she says. “Because if people don’t see themselves, then why should they believe that you speak for them or that you’re working on their behalf?
“It’s the diversity of thought and life experience that actually helps you to tackle some of these huge issues and challenges that we’re having to deal with. It’s important for leaders to pay attention to who’s sitting at the table,” she says, adding: “I’m terrified of groupthink because I think it gives you bad outcomes.”
Canada’s public service may have made great strides on representation of women in senior roles in recent years and decades, and it is now turning its attention to diversity and inclusion more broadly, but as Laroche warns, it and other countries must “beware of complacency – it’s so easy to slip back and undo a lot of the great work that’s been done”.
For her, the key is to widen the nets so that the talent pool is as diverse as possible. “I’m a big believer in human potential. And I want to make sure that we are really tapping into that potential and allowing that potential to make its best contribution.”
You can read more on what Canada has done to improve representation of women in the senior civil service in our interview with Catherine Blewett, then deputy clerk of the Privy Council and associate secretary to the Cabinet, from our last Index published in 2020.