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Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Dame Bernadette Kelly

5 min read Partner content

Dame Bernadette Kelly is the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport and the Civil Service Social Mobility Champion. As part of our Women in Westminster series, PoliticsHome sat down with Dame Bernadette to learn more about why she believes diversity in the civil service can better deliver for communities across the UK

Dame Bernadette Kelly was born and raised in Birmingham, but when she speaks there is only the merest hint of a West Midlands accent.

“My brothers have all got Birmingham accents, you know,” she tells PoliticsHome during our sit-down conversation. “But mine has been polished off from being in the civil service.”

It is a throwaway remark, but at the same time provides an insight into how Kelly sees Whitehall as a workplace where difference has not always been easily accommodated.

However, she believes that is changing. Almost four decades of experience working across Whitehall has given Kelly a front-row seat to witness positive moves to shape a workforce that better reflects the nation in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and other characteristics.

This was not always the case. Kelly remembers that in her early days as a civil servant, women were a rarity in the most senior positions.

“When I joined the civil service there were very few women in senior roles,” she recalls. “The few senior women that were there were either seen as a bit of a joke, terrifying, or some combination of that. They were somehow not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.”

Kelly believes that since the start of her career, the culture of Whitehall has made significant progress, and has in many respects been at the forefront of improving equality in the workplace.

“Obviously that's changed beyond recognition now,” she explains commenting on the previous lack of women visible in leadership positions. “There's no doubt that the civil service has paved the way on flexible working and has really done things that other employers just weren't routinely thinking about back in the 80s and 90s.”

Kelly is positive about her own experiences as a woman in the civil service. However, whilst acknowledging the scale of change, she is clear that more work has to be done. She warns that challenges remain and cautions against complacency.  

“Whilst I think progress has been phenomenal, we cannot pat ourselves on the back and declare victory,” she tells us. “It is still an issue. I would be surprised if I or any of my female colleagues could say hand on heart that we don't all feel it a little bit sometimes.”

Kelly herself says that she was “not particularly interested in politics” when she was younger. Indeed, during her childhood, the high-profile female politicians of the day, such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher, struck her as slightly distant figures.

“They felt very remote to me,” she explains. “I mean, they weren't people whom I would have identified with or sort of seen myself as following in the footsteps of, or anything of that sort.”

Instead, when asked to name the people who inspired her, Kelly reels off a list of strong, uncompromising, and unapologetic women from the world of music. It is noticeable that the women she names, such as Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, possess the same qualities that Kelly subsequently grew to admire in women who led the way in public life such as Barbara Castle.

“She was one of the most influential politicians to ever to lead the Department for Transport,” Kelly tells us as she lists the range of policies Castle introduced in the role from breathalysers to speed limits. “Imagine what it was like back in the 1960s for a woman who didn't drive to introduce those sorts of policies. It must have taken a lot of courage, a lot of bloody-mindedness, and a lot of grit.”

That ability to challenge established thinking to deliver policies that improve the lives of people across the UK remains central to Kelly’s vision as a senior leader. She believes that creating a more diverse workforce is a critical enabler of that, ensuring different perspectives are taken into account when important decisions are being made.

“In the civil service, because we're very polite and we have a way of behaving, it means sometimes in meetings we are all violently agreeing with one another,” she says. “I am always impressed when people have the courage to disrupt that. I think that’s one of the most important things that we need to be able to do in our culture. Challenging what needs to be challenged.”

It is something that Kelly is working to achieve as the Civil Service Social Mobility Champion, taking discussions about diversity beyond gender and ethnicity to also consider social class. That is ensuring that the civil service includes views from people with different life experiences.

“It is fundamentally about being representative of the society that we are here to serve,” she explains. “That is why I think social diversity is particularly important. Decisions being taken solely by people who've experienced relative privilege will not be as inclusive of those taken by a wider range of people.”

Her advice to others reflects the importance that Kelly attaches to that ability to challenge received wisdom. It is something that she believes is essential for a modern and effective civil service to deliver for the nation.

“If you look at any great failure in public life, it's usually because there's an element of groupthink,” she tells us. “People shouldn’t be afraid of failure or embarrassment. They need to feel that it is safe to challenge.”

The work that Kelly leads, both within the Department of Transport and across the civil service, is focused on creating a culture where different views are not only allowed but encouraged. Listening to her, it is clear that for Kelly diversity is not simply a “nice to have.” It is an essential building block for better decision-making in public life.

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