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Canada has held on to the G20 top spot since 2013. Catherine Blewett, the country’s most senior female civil servant, explains how the country has smashed the glass ceiling – but argues that the job is not yet complete 

Canada has the highest proportion of women in its senior civil service of all G20 countries, at 48.1%. The country has held the top spot ever since 2013, when the first Women Leaders Index was published.

According to Catherine Blewett – deputy clerk of the Privy Council, associate secretary to the Cabinet, and Canada’s most senior female civil servant – the greatest progress on female representation has been made at the very top levels of government, among executives: from departmental leaders down to directors-general and executive directors. “The glass ceiling, as far as the Canadian federal public service is concerned, has been shattered by my closest colleagues,” Blewett says. And that transformation in the leadership’s demographics has huge impact: “If there are zero women at the top, how can we change the culture? Tone from the top matters.”

Canada’s success in the top ranks of government is built on long-term commitment and a wide range of initiatives. But it clearly received a boost in 2016, when a new and far more transparent process was introduced for selecting ‘Governor in Council’ appointees. This covers those appointed to federal agencies, boards and commissions, chairs, members of administrative and adjudicative tribunals and other key roles. Since July 2019, more than half (53%) of all such appointments have gone to women – an outcome that has been driven by the new approach.

Women have also recently been appointed for the first time to a number of senior leadership positions, including chief science adviser; chief public health officer; director of public prosecutions; president of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety; president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; and chair of Via Rail.

Keep up the pressure

Nevertheless, the federal public service isn’t resting on its laurels. “The thing about culture is that it can take decades to build, but moments to disappear if leaders don’t maintain the momentum,” Blewett says. “Sustained progress is critical.”

Currently, civil service leaders are focusing on changing working roles so that people with caring responsibilities can keep on developing their careers whilst looking after children or elderly relatives. “Creating more family-friendly work environments is a start,” says Blewett. “The demands of some senior positions can be off-putting for many people, especially women, who are still, in many cases, the primary caregivers. Better work-life balance measures and flexible work arrangements would benefit more women and men, and encourage more women to put their name forward for leadership positions.”

With this in mind, the Canadian government has implemented a number of measures that benefit both men and women in the civil service and the wider economy. Legislation has been passed that allows both parents to share childcare responsibilities; an amendment to the Canada Labour Code gives federally regulated workers the right to request flexible work arrangements; pay equity legislation has been introduced; and gender budgeting has been made an obligatory part of the federal budget process as a way to promote equality through fiscal policy.

Better decision-making

Blewett emphasises that gender equality isn’t just about the public sector’s duty to tackle discrimination: there are hard, practical benefits to creating a more balanced workforce. She points to studies showing that women’s participation in decision-making at all levels affects both the range and type of policy issues and solutions that are considered. “As more women are in leadership positions, there is an increase in policy-making that emphasises quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities,” she says.

Gender equality leads to better decision-making, she believes – not because women make better decisions than men, but because bringing in different perspectives mitigates against ‘groupthink’: the tendency for social pressures to lead people into accepting orthodoxies or assumptions without question. “Women experience the world differently from men, and it is important to have our voices heard and represented,” she says.

The benefits of bringing in different viewpoints and experiences, of course, apply to all minority and disadvantaged groups. “Diversity is so important to good governance and good public policy,” Blewett says. “We need to continue to promote increases in the number of indigenous, black and other visible minorities as senior leaders. My hope is that we also continue to be an accessible service, supporting and promoting workers with different abilities.”

No longer one of the few women in the room

As for her own experience in the federal public service, Blewett has seen the progress towards gender balance first-hand. When she joined the service 30 years ago, she was usually one of the few women in the room. “At the time, I was conscious of the lack of female colleagues, but was not deterred. I worked very hard, and when someone told me something wasn’t possible, I felt the incentive to figure out how to make it work,” she says.

She also called out instances where she thought treatment was inequitable. “This did not always make me popular. but I would say that it was during that formative time in my career that I learned to be direct, with clear, unvarnished advice.” These skills, she says, have contributed to her ability to succeed in a range of different roles.

Having made it to the top, Blewett is careful to give others a helping hand up the ladder. “I work very hard to mentor and support women at various stages of their careers,” she says: her goal is that “every young student, research officer, mid-level manager or aspiring senior leader benefits from an inclusive culture in the workplace, and genuine support.”

Of course, there will always be more to do. While the Canadian federal public service has made significant progress in recent years, “we must continue to review and refine government policies and programmes through the lens of diversity,” Blewett says. “I would like to see the federal public service be the employer of choice for all Canadians – attracting the boldest and most brilliant minds so that the Canadian citizens we serve benefit.”

And as she says, if the federal public service – the country’s largest employer – can make the shift, then other fields and sectors are likely to follow.

Catherine Blewett
Catherine Blewett