Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Jess Bowie
A bygone era saw women having to leave their civil service roles when they got married, a policy that for Foreign Office staff was only abolished in 1973. As part of the Women in Westminster series, we sat down with Civil Service World co-editor Jess Bowie to learn how things have changed for female officials and why recognising the unsung heroes who keep the country running is more important than ever.
"I was a teenager in the late 90s/early 00s which was, in many ways, a pretty toxic time for women,” says Jess Bowie, co-editor of Civil Service World. “Looking back, role models felt few and far between. Thankfully there was Lisa Simpson – to whom I probably owe about 90% of my personality, as well as my moral compass.”
Thankfully, Bowie had some real-world inspiration, too. She cites the female teachers, particularly at A-Level and university, who “taught me to think for myself and, each in their own way, drew my attention to the existence of patriarchy and inequality in general”.
Bowie has been at the helm of CSW since 2014. She has seen the systemic and cultural constraints facing women in Whitehall up close and, understandably, believes women in the civil service deserve far more recognition than they currently get.
“Back in the day, women were expected to give up their civil service jobs after they got married – a rule which, for Foreign Office officials, was only abolished in 1973,” she says before describing how things have improved.
“The year I became editor, a Cabinet Office-commissioned report described the Senior Civil Service as having ‘a macho culture’ and being like a ‘bear pit’. The representation of women in the SCS has really improved since then. We’ve seen steady progress towards almost 50% women in senior roles.”
She also notes that the civil service has increasingly embraced flexible working over the past 10 years, which has helped women and men alike.
Bowie knows the journey towards a truly diverse and inclusive civil service is far from complete and argues that monitoring representation closely is crucial to sustaining progress. “The civil service leadership should keep an eagle eye on what the data is telling us about representation at different levels so we can keep up momentum on the diversity agenda. Past experience shows it can easily slide,” she says.
“We also shouldn't rest on our laurels. While we might have more women in senior positions at the top of the civil service, there's a sense in which many of them are women who look like the men who were at the top before them. We need to see more racial, socio-economic and neurodiversity in all our leaders – and also in the styles of leadership that are considered successful at the top of government.”
Less emphasis on macho forms of leadership is something she would like to see in the future. She says: “Sadly, while some elements of the ‘bear pit’ still endure, a lot more senior officials these days are demonstrating open leadership and ‘bringing their whole selves to work.’ And, while that phrase itself is slightly jarring, that’s all to the good.”
A Patron of Women in Westminster, Bowie believes that it's imperative to show young women that gender isn’t a barrier to reaching the very highest echelons of public service.
“That adage about role models – ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ – remains hugely important. As civil servants like Amy Rees (former prison governor and now head of HMPPS) who have appeared on previous Women in Westminster lists show, being a woman does not preclude working in these fascinating and vital roles – even in tough, male-dominated environments.”
With Women in Westminster 2024 nominations now open, Bowie reflects on what Patrons are excited about as they pull together next year’s list. “We are looking for women who have had a tangible impact on UK public life over the past year, including those whose work might have gone unnoticed or whose achievements deserve to be trumpeted more loudly."
“Civil servants – the vast majority of whom work behind the scenes delivering for the government of the day – are, in particular, real unsung heroes. Britain couldn’t function without them, and yet they don’t receive nearly enough recognition.”
The bigger the pool of nominations the judges have to choose from, the better, she adds. “So, if someone you know has inspired those around them or achieved something you think we should all be shouting about, please do nominate them.”
Nominations for Women in Westminster 2024 close on Friday 24 November!
There are so many talented women in Westminster who often go unrecognised. We are therefore calling on you to nominate any woman currently working in Westminster or across the supporting sectors that you believe has made an impact on politics or public life in the past year. These women could be, but are not limited to, parliamentarians, journalists, civil servants, activists, think tankers or public affairs professionals. To find out more and submit your nomination, please visit the Women in Westminster website.
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