This week’s guest post is by Emily Clayton (English 2011).

“When I arrived at the Treasury I was told that everyone there was allowed one quirk; mine, it turned out, was being a woman.”
– Sharon White, Second Permanent Secretary for the Treasury

The comment provided some context for the significance of the position to which Sharon was promoted at the end of last year: she is the most senior female civil servant ever to have worked at the Treasury. She and Julia Goldsworthy (until recently Special Adviser to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander) are female Fitz alumni in a historically male-dominated environment at the heart of Whitehall. Sharon’s comment – delivered to an audience of college members at the third in the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ series – raised a laugh and was quickly followed by reassurances that much has changed since Sharon first worked there in the early 1990s: the Treasury is now 45% women.

From left:  Julia Goldsworthy, Nicola Padfield, Sharon White.

From left: Julia Goldsworthy, Nicola Padfield, Sharon White.

The discussion, focused on the career paths of both women after they left Fitz, held particular relevance for me. Not only am I a finalist, with aspirations to work in some (as yet undecided) area of public policy, but from next September I will be working at the Bank of England – an institution in which there are still noticeable disparities in gender representation at the top. Interning there last summer was a shock. After two years at Fitz, with an incoming female master, and incumbent female JMA and MCR Presidents, going into an institution which had so few women in senior positions felt completely alien.

It isn’t as if the Bank isn’t trying. Talking to Julia afterwards, we discussed the number of joint ‘Women in the Bank’ and ‘Women at the Treasury’ events which are being spearheaded by Charlotte Hogg, Chief Operating Officer, who joined the Bank at the same time as new Governor Mark Carney. Carney himself has made it clear in a letter to George Osborne that he feels the Bank has ‘a responsibility to foster top female economists all the way through the ranks’, and has just appointed Nemat Shafik as the first female Monetary Policy Committee member in four years, and just one of five ever to have sat on the committee. In the team in which I worked I felt just as valuable a member as I would have if I were a man, and of the team members under the age of thirty, the gender split was pretty equal. But in spite of this, in my intake of around twenty five, I was one of just three women, and the long term average for graduate recruitment of women is just 29%. The Bank may have ambitions to increase the diversity, but there are still underlying systemic problems, inconsequential in themselves, but symptomatic of a continuing mindset which has yet to adapt: the introductory talk on “sport” meant “men’s sport”, and not one women’s team was mentioned.

Refreshingly, however, the conversation wasn’t solely focused around the gender of either Sharon or Julia, but instead their roles and achievements across each of their careers. As Sharon pointed out to her son, ‘Woman Gets Job’ isn’t a newsworthy story. I would like to think the same. And yet more pleasingly for someone with only vague career aspirations, neither Julia nor Sharon attributed their success to a rigorously structured career plan. In spite of both being interested in areas of governance and policy whilst at university, Sharon admitted to attending just one political meeting in her time at Cambridge (and then only to hear Ken Livingstone), and Julia to attending none at all. But after working as a researcher for Lib Dem MP Matthew Taylor, Julia became an MP herself in 2005. Sharon was a youth-work volunteer in inner city Birmingham when a friend suggested she apply to join the Civil Service. Having since worked in the Treasury, the Number 10 Policy Unit, the World Bank, the Department for International Development, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice, and having now rejoined the Treasury, Sharon is proof that such variety can be beneficial to a career, and that following opportunities can be just as successful as working to a set of continually updated five-year plans.

In response to a question, Sharon noted that it is important for her children to see her work, and whilst juggling life can at times be difficult (she recounted a time where she ran from a sports day in the morning to witness at the Public Accounts Committee in the afternoon), she feels that she is at a point in her career at which both are able to be flexible – as is her husband Robert Chote, Chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Noting the increasing numbers of men taking paternity leave in the Treasury, and shared parental leave in the legislative pipeline, she suggested that future employers will consider childcare an issue for all employees, not merely for women. Sharon seems optimistic for the future.

Graduating this year, I will be entering a very different job market to those entered by Sharon (who graduated in 1988) and Julia (in 2001). I would like to think that when I start at the Bank in September, I am going into an organisation, like the Treasury, which is striving for gender equality. I have never felt limited by my gender, and initially saw the discussion as an invaluable opportunity to hear from influential people about Whitehall.

But it is a reality that the positions occupied by Sharon, Julia, Charlotte Hogg and Nemat Shafik are still notable because of their gender. ‘Woman Gets Job’, at least for the moment, remains newsworthy.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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