Ex-Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell blames party leaders for lack of women at the 2010 coalition negotiations

The former Cabinet Secretary, who directed the coalition negotiations in 2010, has some stern words about gender balance for the key players involved.

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Lord O'Donnell, the former senior civil servant who served as Cabinet Secretary from 2005-11, blames party leaders for lack of women in high-profile roles.

At an event held by the Institute for Government, O'Donnell was singing the praises of women who work in minister's private offices, who he says from experience have been better than men at giving "honest feedback"; they "find a way" of giving ministers constructive criticism. He said, "I would have a positive bias about putting women in private office", and lashed out at the fast stream rule that fast streamers are rotated after six months in private office, calling it "stupid" and urging: "Matt Hancock, please change that rule now".

When discussing the experience of women in Whitehall, O'Donnell highlighted the responsibility of Prime Ministers to promote women to ministerial positions. There were "very few women ministers; that's an important part of it", he said, when discussing Whitehall's history of representing women.

Talking about present day politics, O'Donnell expressed frustration at political parties for there only being one woman at the coalition negotiating table in 2010 (Harriet Harman for Labour), when I asked if negotiations would have been smoother, and a better deal would have resulted, had there been more women present. O'Donnell blamed party leaders: "It's a reflection of how few woman there were in the top benches of all three parties," he told me. "And that the prime ministers [party leaders] chose not to select women in their negotiating teams."

He reflected that one "regret" he has about the most recent election is that we were unable to watch "another world" in which the SNP would have been negotiating, with "Nicola Sturgeon being in charge of Alex Salmond - that would've been fun!"

O'Donnell also criticised the quick-fix solution to women on boards being non-executive roles. He said, "I am very, very cautious about female non-execs on boards", suggesting it's the low-hanging fruit of women's representation in business. This could be interpreted as a criticism of the coalition, whose progress on women on FTSE 100 boards has mainly been to non-executive positions.

But O'Donnell admitted he would be "nervous about saying on the EU renegotiation, we've got to have a woman do it". He also emphasised that good negotiating depends on experience rather than gender, adding, "the more you do it, the better you get".

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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