Zoom on

Gender equality in the PA: zooming in on careers and professions

Trending on social media a little while ago was a photo of a panel at conference on the role of the PA in Italy’s economic recovery. Who were the dozen people at the table? All men. For a few days, in the bubble of online followers of the debate about inclusion in the public sector, a number of questions came up. There are always so few women at these conferences, but is that the cause or the effect of the lack of women managers in the PA? Are they not invited because there are still too few of them in executive posts? Or maybe they’re not climbing the career ladder because they’re still the victims of prejudice, even in the PA?  


Not everyone is completely convinced that the question of gender pertains to the PA too, which traditionally counts a high percentage of female employees. Yet the data show a plethora of public bodies populated by women – but run by men. 


According to our most recent data, in local government bodies (municipal, provincial, and metropolitan areas), there is essentially gender parity among employees. (Specifically, 55% of the work force is female.) But there is a persistent gap which widens as organizational responsibility grows. In fact, only one manager out of three is a woman, and female General Directors are few and far between. What’s more, as far as the distribution of city managers, at first glance no gender gap appears (with women accounting for 52%). But women who serve in this position in the ten biggest Italian cities number only two.  


Turning to government ministries, although nearly six workers out of ten are women, as we move up the management tiers, again the divide grows: in the top tier, fewer than two managers out of five are women. And in universities, half of all employees are women, but they generally cover jobs in administration (where three out of five people are women), but we find only a residual percentage of women filling academic roles. (Of all associate and full professors, 35% are women.) Last, women count one in three among the Executive Directors in the healthcare system, where overall we find the highest gender gap to the detriment of men. In fact, four out of six employees are women. But what jobs do they do in healthcare? Half are nurses (47%), one out of three work in admin (27%), and one out of ten is a doctor (12%).  


The data we’ve cited above tell us that in the PA we need to monitor not only the gender gap in terms of career levels, but also the distribution of gender within the different positions and roles – which reveals an appreciable lack of parity.  


Now the question is: What measures can we adopt to level the playing field in terms of access to managerial roles? A piece of the puzzle is inclusion policies, beginning by shoring up the supply of employee services (for instance, increasing availability in nursery schools), with an eye to lightening the load in terms of household and family duties, which typically fall to women, one of the chief reasons why they leave the work world or give up on investing in their careers. If we zoom in on the public sector, the recent Law Decree n. 36/2022 (dubbed PNRR 2), which came into effect on 1 May 2022 and is currently being converted into law, bridging the gender gap is also an undisputed item on the reform agenda for the PA. Case in point, Article 1 Section 5 of the PNRR 2 calls for the introduction of “measures that offer specific advantages - or avoid or compensate for disadvantages - in the careers of the underrepresented gender.” Other provisions call for proportionality with respect to the purpose underlying the “criteria of positive discrimination,” as well as their adoption for “equal qualifications as required by the role, and equal scores on selection exams.” The regulation also requires that the Department of the Public Administration of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, together with the Equal Opportunity Department, adopt guidelines providing indications on how to narrow the gender gap by 30 September 2022. 


The second piece of the puzzle is to come up with tools to monitor the phenomenon both at a systemic and local level. To what extent are people aware of the gender gap in individual government offices? Is it part of the conversation in organizations? How much of the problem is seen as physiological, and possibly even incontrovertible? Here we turn to the impartial “gender officer,” who is tasked with monitoring complaints of acts of discrimination, sexual and moral harassment, mobbing, and so forth. On one hand embedding this role in the PA is potentially an extremely useful tool to guarantee a qualified, third-party safeguard for female employees. Yet on the other, the time may be ripe to transition from dealing with individual episodes (albeit a must) to a more organic and systemic approach.  


In this regard, another proposal is contained in the Integrated Action Plan for the Public Administration (PIAO), the new document for coordinating the PA’s planning tools. By linking the Positive Action Plan (PIP) to HR policies in the PA, now gender policies can be introduced into the development strategy. To ensure that overall gender parity is achieved in the middle to long term, it is critically important to track the phenomenon over time in terms of individual organizations. This is also useful to assess whether or not the measures that are adopted from year to year actually contribute to reducing inequality, and the rate at which this is happening. The starting line is the tools which have already been adopted, such as gender budgeting, that can help disseminate greater awareness of the phenomenon. 


Another proposal is to remove “invisible” roadblocks on access routes to executive roles. Recently the President of the National School of Administration (SNA), Professor Paola Severino, stated that some of the admission exams used in previous selection schemes for the school tended to penalize women, who, statistically speaking, are more risk adverse.  The data probably need to be studied further, also in light of gender differences in decision-making styles. In any case, this is a good trail to follow to expose the obstacles that we think of as invisible, simply because we’re not used to seeing them. 


Another risk comes from new career paths regulated by employment contracts with regard to upward mobility and by new norms addressing access to management roles. The key here is to avoid placing too much emphasis on past experience in previous jobs, and in doing so underestimating the true capabilities of candidates. The point is to prevent perpetrating the prejudiced view that women are reluctant to try to break through the glass ceiling and take on roles of responsibility. 


Lastly, we need to try out more agile organizational models, ones which are also based on hybrid work (such as agile work). This is still a valid way to help employees to reconcile family and career, which in turn will mean that women no longer have to choose between the two.  


To sum up, although the PA is mainly populated by women, it is still largely run by men. To give women who work in the public sector the chance to choose to build a career like their male colleagues, reconciliation policies are one solution (from child care facilities to agile work). Another is deploying selection criteria that do not penalize women. Finally, continuing to monitor the gender gap in management - and this at both a systemic level and in individual government agencies - helps make everyone more aware of the real problem of gender equality.