14. Improving gender equality in public employment

Erin Kelleher
Meeta Tarani

A diverse public sector workforce has enhanced potential to formulate effective policy responses that understand the origin and depth of issues, improve responsiveness of public actions, and support policy outcomes for diverse groups (OECD, 2021[1]). As of 2019, the average share of women in the public sector in the OECD was 58%, compared to 45% share in total employment (OECD, 2022[2]), and it had changed little in comparison with 2015 (Figure 14.1). Similarly, as seen in the figure, women represent more than half of all public employees in a majority of OECD countries (OECD, 2019[3]).

Moreover, the problem of the “leaky pipeline” – i.e. many women leaving the workforce throughout their career paths, leading to women being underrepresented in management and executive positions – stubbornly persists. As shown in Figure 14.2, women compose only 37% of senior management positions in the public sector in OECD in 2020, despite an increase of 5 percentage points since 2015 (OECD, 2021[1]). This indicates that OECD countries should strengthen their efforts to support a better representation of women in senior and leadership roles in the public service (OECD, 2016[5]; 2019[3]).

Besides the leaky pipeline (or vertical segregation), horizontal segregation also persists, with women more likely to work in support management functions (e.g. human resources, public relations, and administration) in the public sector (OECD, 2019[3]) and being overrepresented in certain public employment roles, such as teachers or nurses (OECD, 2021[1]). Women’s employment in the public sector workforce also continues to be hampered by persisting general barriers to women’s employment, such as harassment in the workplace, overrepresentation in part-time roles, and so on (OECD, 2019[3]) (Chapter 13).

Addressing these barriers will require progress on multiple fronts including through flexibility, transparency and fairness of public employment systems; reducing the gender wage gap; supporting pay transparency; ensuring gender equality and diversity in all levels of management and across occupational groups; assigning specific roles, responsibilities; and improving executive accountability for progress on gender balance, as also highlighted in the 2015 OECD Council Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life. Challenging existing gender stereotypes and eradicating all forms of sexual harassment in public employment are key actions to support progress towards gender equality in public service (and beyond).

Acting on occupational segregation necessitates changing societal norms and expectations related to which jobs are suitable or acceptable for men and women. Countries have supported this positive change in various ways, including via targets or quotas for gender equality in public service recruitment. 14 OECD countries have gender targets for the whole public service in place, while 7 countries have targets only for senior level public servants (OECD, 2021[1]; 2022[2]) (Chapter 18). In 2019, Portugal adopted a 40% quota for women and men in senior leadership positions in public employment, which applies not only to civil servants in public administration, but also to employees in public higher education institutions (Chapter 18). In 2021, Canada’s Public Service Commission released an audit report aimed at promoting merit-based recruitment, and consideration of policies and practices to ensure a balanced representation of women and men in each occupational group within the public sector (Public Service Commission of Canada, 2021[6]). In New Zealand, the Public Service Act 2020 provided an updated framework for employment. It includes the principle that a given cohort of public service officials should reflect the composition of society and creates the responsibility for departmental executives to foster inclusiveness and diversity.

Sexual harassment, which remains an important issue in OECD countries, is one of the key barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace including in public employment, and is integral to any discussion on gender equality (OECD, 2019[3]). In this regard, the #MeToo movement is credited with significantly raising awareness of persisting gender equalities among policy makers and increasing the pressure to act over the past few years.

OECD countries have introduced a wide range of measures to tackle sexual harassment in the public sector. Among the 26 countries who responded to the 2021 OECD Survey on Gender Mainstreaming and Governance, the most common measures were standardised, confidential complaints procedures (54%), voluntary in-service staff trainings on sexual harassment (46%), measures to foster openness and transparency in the workplace culture (38%), and adopting sexual harassment policies (38%) (OECD, 2022[2]). For instance, in Portugal, public employers are obliged by law to adopt codes of conduct for the prevention and combat of harassment at work and establish disciplinary procedures. Israel’s Gender Equality Division, which works to promote gender equality within the civil service, has supported the development and provision of tutorials dedicated to prevention of sexual harassment across its ministries (OECD, 2021[7]). Yet, only 35% of countries adhering to the 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life have their public service collecting data on complaints for sexual harassment in the workplace (OECD, 2019[3]). Further progress in data collection can be an important step to gauge the performance of the public service, create accountability for meeting gender equality goals, and incite action.

Emerging trends in the future of work, such as the automation and digital transformation of the workplace, as well as the shift to flexible working arrangements, are likely to affect men and women differently. They also present the potential to recalibrate the workplace in a gender-equal manner (OECD, 2022[2]). Given the high representation of women in the public sector, and since market forces do not necessarily act on it with the same pressure to digitalise and automate as the private sector, there is opportunity for the public sector to anticipate the effects of these emerging trends for gender equality and lead the way in defining policy responses (OECD, forthcoming[8]).

Automation and digitalisation can affect the way workers perform jobs. So, there are concerns that women may be disadvantaged since they remain underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields and may have fewer opportunities to reskill or integrate new technologies into their work, partly because they also spend more time on unpaid care (Madgavkar et al., 2019[9]) (Chapter 13). The public sector is well placed to identify and account for such gaps within career paths and across occupational groups in the public service, and promptly react by moving skills across administrative siloes and upskilling/reskilling employees as necessary (OECD, forthcoming[8]; 2021[10]). Fostering transparency through better collection of workforce data is essential to identify and address any gaps in opportunity for women. For example, collecting data on learning and development needs and uptake by gender can help ensure that training and growth opportunities reach the entire workforce. However, few governments currently collect data on diverse groups’ needs for training and participation in training, making it difficult to identify development needs and barriers to learning (OECD, forthcoming[11]).

Finally, some structural and policy transformations were further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The widespread shutdown of physical workplaces led to a massive shift to home-based work for many, including public sector employees (Chapter 26). Improving uptake of flexible working arrangements by both women and men across all levels of public employment, as well as addressing communication breakdowns and presenteeism bias, can go a long way in supporting gender equality. At the same time, the adoption of flexible working arrangements calls for careful monitoring for their potential impacts on gender equality through regular collection of gender-disaggregated data and analysis, to ensure that they serve their purpose. Box 14.1 shows New Zealand’s approach to encouraging flexible working arrangements by default.


[9] Madgavkar, A. et al. (2019), The future of women at work: Transitions in the age of automation, McKinsey Global Institute, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/the-future-of-women-at-work-transitions-in-the-age-of-automation?cid=eml-web.

[2] OECD (2022), Report on the Implementation of the OECD Gender Recommendations, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/mcm/Implementation-OECD-Gender-Recommendations.pdf.

[7] OECD (2021), 2021 Survey on Gender Mainstreaming and Governance.

[1] OECD (2021), Government at a Glance 2021, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1c258f55-en.

[10] OECD (2021), Public Employment and Management 2021: The Future of the Public Service, OECD Publishing, https://doi.org/10.1787/938f0d65-en.

[3] OECD (2019), Fast Forward to Gender Equality: Mainstreaming, Implementation and Leadership, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/g2g9faa5-en.

[4] OECD (2017), Government at a Glance 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/gov_glance-2017-en.

[5] OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264252820-en.

[8] OECD (forthcoming), Future of Work in Public Service: What is in Store for Gender Equality?.

[11] OECD (forthcoming), Public Employment and Management 2023.

[6] Public Service Commission of Canada (2021), Audit of Employment Representation in Recruitment, https://www.canada.ca/en/public-service-commission/services/publications/audit-of-employment-equity-representation-in-recruitment.html.

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