51 per cent of the UK population is female, but only 32 per cent of our MPs are women. 43 per cent of NHS chief execs are women, but 77 per cent of its employees are female. Professor Karen Johnston’s research demonstrates that the lack of diversity in organisations makes for poor performance and lack of trust. And it’s not enough just to legislate for change.
You can’t build a bridge without breaking glass
There’s an old, groan-worthy playground joke, designed to embarrass as much as to get a laugh. It opens like this:
"What do you call a lady doctor?"
To make it work, the instigator must instantly pounce on any hesitation, to proclaim:
"A doctor, you sexist!"
It may not be wit worthy of Oscar Wilde, but it has probably endured because, for all the advances achieved by feminism, gender is still baked into professional stereotypes. And that’s no laughing matter.
Karen Johnston, Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Portsmouth, says the consequences of a lack of representation go far beyond individuals’ career paths:
"Imagine you’re a single mother going to a local government office and seeking support. If nobody can identify with your situation and all you get is a white male from a particular class, you’re going to feel alienated.
"I think that improving the representation of public sector institutions to reflect the communities they serve is really important.’
She points to the UK parliament. Following the 2017 general election, 32 per cent of MPs are women. Yet in the same year, the World Bank estimated that women made up 50.7 per cent of the UK population.
When it comes to representation of ethnic minorities, just 8 per cent of MPs elected in 2017 were from BAME backgrounds.
"What message does that send?" Karen asks. "That that’s an institution that doesn’t represent you."
"People in society will question whether these institutions legitimately represent their interests, and whether they can be trusted. I think it’s really important that government starts to reflect the communities it serves. Not just to achieve a democratic principle, but also because, as much of our research at Portsmouth has shown, it does improve performance."
Karen’s research focuses on public administration and public management, with a particular interest in the impact of public sector reforms, and gender equality in institutions.
The 2014 UK research assessment exercise recognised her research on gender equality in public policy as “internationally excellent”, and she has been awarded the prestigious Julia J Henderson award for “substantial contribution to international public administration.”
Before we look at Karen’s research in more detail, let’s consider the context.
Buying Trumps, selling Clintons
Karen identifies a number of barriers to the representation of women in public sector organisations.
Overt discrimination is only one, and it tends to be most prevalent in countries where social, cultural and religious views inhibit women from entering paid employment.
On the surface, the UK is more progressive, but there are still plenty of barriers.
For one, we have some of the highest childcare costs in Europe, and a culture in which mothers are more likely than fathers to step back from their careers and raise children.
Karen says the UK is also a good example of “glass ceilings” – the invisible barriers that stop women from rising to the more senior, better paid roles in an organisation.
For example, Karen explains, in the NHS women make up around 70 per cent of the workforce. But only 43 per cent of NHS chief executives are female. Most of the women in the NHS are nurses. “What do you call a lady doctor?”, indeed.
You can even see it in organisations where there’s a high proportion of female employment, like the NHS. To rise up the ranks, you have to comply with various performance assessment frameworks.
In the civil service (as in many other organisations) we find "glass walls" – invisible barriers that keep women and men in different kinds of occupations. These accord to gender stereotypes, with more women in areas like health, social care and education, and a higher number of men in departments focused on areas like defence and crime.
Why does this happen?
Karen identifies cultural and gender norms, woven into organisational cultures:
"We are born into biological categories, male and female. Society attaches gender norms to those categories, and those values create identities.
"Women are supposed to be "feminine", which means being nurturing and caring. When people transgress those norms, often they face sanctions.
"If the organisational culture values "masculinity" – being decisive, competitive, task orientated and directive – these values are rewarded, and the assumption is you need to espouse them in order to be a leader.
"You can even see it in organisations where there’s a high proportion of female employment, like the NHS. To rise up the ranks, you have to comply with various performance assessment frameworks."
Those frameworks, of course, will be based around the values expected of a “leader”. Karen believes that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid in the USA failed, in part, because of what the culture expects of political leadership:
"You’ve got to be tough and decisive, to make tough decisions. These are all masculine norms which Donald Trump espouses.
"When Hillary Clinton tried to adopt those masculine norms, they just saw her as being dishonest. When she tried to tell them about her experiences as Secretary of State, that she can be diplomatic and make tough decisions, they didn’t believe her."
Karen’s research explores what can be done to change outcomes like these.
Talking to the man in the mirror
In a number of research papers, Karen has identified the need for government to be innovative in solving complex cultural problems.
She has championed the idea of collaboration with the “third sector” – an umbrella term which includes not-for-profit, values-driven bodies such as charities, voluntary and community organisations, social enterprises and cooperatives.
"Involving the third sector in innovative solutions, being inclusive in decision making, and implementing that through practice, potentially holds solutions to engaging the community, being more inclusive and giving people a voice."
Karen believes this is vital at a time when “austerity” budgets have led to many public services being scaled back and even cancelled. It is now difficult for local government in the UK to deliver more than just basic, statutory services.
"Bringing communities on board is a way in which you could be innovative in solving very complex social problems.
"When a public sector organisation is not inclusive or doesn’t represent communities or groups like women, people with disabilities, or British ethnic minorities, I think that makes for very poor decision making.
"That has an impact in how you address problems or issues in society. Also, if you have an institution that doesn’t represent or mirror its population, then its legitimacy is questionable.
"We ought to see 51 per cent of women represented in institutions of public administration, from every grade up. It erodes societal trust if they don’t have representation." Together with her colleague, Professor Rhys Andrews of Cardiff University, Karen delivered research which shows the impact on crime of having more women in the police force:
"We showed that, where there is a higher representation of female police officers, there was a higher rate of domestic violence arrests. So, female officers were acting in the interests of women as victims of domestic violence.
"This empirically shows the performance of the police can be improved in addressing gender-based violence, sexual assault and domestic violence – by increasing the amount of female representation, and the number of female officers."
This is just one example. As Karen says, "there have been many studies, including my own, that have shown that where there’s better representation, there are better performing public sector organisations."
The benefits work both ways: "it builds trust with communities, and you get to understand communities better, so you can better address the issues they face."
Don’t just tick the box, think beyond it
1918 was a historical turning point for women’s rights. After an intense campaign, the suffragettes finally secured the right for women – though not all women – to vote in elections in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
As the centenary of that victory was celebrated in 2018, the Me Too Movement gathered pace, with women around the world speaking up about the ingrained and sometimes violent sexism they face in even the most apparently progressive of societies.
Well aware that there is still a lot of work to do in the ongoing journey towards full equality, Karen is widening the focus of her research:
"I’m connecting with scholars around the globe, to ask what we can do to address the lack of women in public institutions, and increase female representation in policy making areas."
She identifies that women suffer terribly in cultures throughout the world:
"In India, for example, you see child brides and the rape of young girls. Even if you look here in the UK, we have one of the lowest conviction rates for rape. We don’t have a high representation of women in our parliament."
How can the UK still have such problems, 100 years on from a significant step towards gender equality?
"Look at the Equal Pay Act. It was passed in 1970. In 2018, we still had a gender pay gap of almost 20 per cent in the UK.
"Introducing legislation and ticking a box doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to introduce change.
"It goes a long way in legislating rights, but there’s an implementation deficit where we don’t have a lot of this legislation being implemented.
"I think it is really important to improve the representation of not just women, but people with disabilities, British ethnic minorities... Otherwise, you just have groupthink."
Karen has carried out a range of research to demonstrate where gaps exist between what’s on paper, in terms of legislation, and what’s happening in reality. One of these studies looked at the NHS.
She explored why, when 77 per cent of the NHS workforce is female, a large proportion of that 77 per cent are nurses:
"When you drill down into the data, you find that a lot of women are graduating from medical school, but they’re going into general practice as opposed to acute surgical careers.
"Why is that, and what are the implications? The first thing is that general practice offers more of a flexible working arrangement, which helps with childcare.
"So the medical profession is becoming more feminised. Then you’re having a skills shortage in surgical careers. You’re having a segregation taking place.
"What are the implications of that? If you have a workforce shortage in surgery, what inefficiencies does that create?"
The next question is crucial. How can this problem be addressed?
"They need to innovate. How can they structure jobs that are inclusive, that create more of a work/life balance? Online training could be part of the answer. It’s important to have a fundamental rethink, and actually look at the profile of the workforce – what are their needs?"
These are questions which should be asked in a whole range of different organisations.
"There’s a long way to go in many public sector institutions. Not just in the UK, but internationally. They need to think beyond the box."
Living in hope
Karen was attracted to the University of Portsmouth because "there was a vibrancy of research, in an environment that supported innovation." But she began her journey a long way away, in a different coastal city, with another naval port: Cape Town.
"I was born in South Africa during apartheid. I saw a lot of inequality, a lot of draconian government policies. It focused my mind on the scale and scope of government intervention, and how it can shape and engineer people’s lives.
"Hence, my focus is always trying to improve public policy decisions, to create a more equal and inclusive society."
Karen hopes her research will reach a very broad audience:
"Policy makers and legislators, to demonstrate the benefits of a more representative public sector, and to ensure that policies which are introduced pay due regard to equality. So, for example, ask what is the impact of a proposed policy on women and their dependents?
"Another audience for my research is communities, and citizens as beneficiaries of public services. Surely everybody wants improved public service provision? And more broadly, there’s a strand of trying to change attitudes in society."
Karen’s confidence about the possibility of change comes from the same experience that drove her to specialise in organisational studies in the first place:
"I am optimistic because when I was growing up, we never thought we’d see the end of apartheid. But we always lived in hope."