Manj Kalar on being a female leader in public finance

Wed 26 Apr 2023

Manj Kalar on being a female leader in public finance

The former civil servant reflects on the barriers and enablers to career progression in the sector

By Murielle Gonzalez

Professional accountant, coach, trainer, consultant and author Manj Kalar has made a name for herself in the public finance sector, not without a struggle or two. There are hints of pride in her voice as she speaks about her 18-year career in the civil service: each role under her belt is an achievement, given public finance continues to be led predominantly by men.

With a couple of weeks to go before the conference Women in Public Finance (22 June 2023), we caught up with her to learn more about her journey, and we asked for insights that could help more women in the sector become the leaders they aspire to be.

From humble beginnings to a fulfilling career

The eldest daughter of three of an Indo-Aryan family in the UK, Kalar had to overcome the barriers of race and gender to succeed in her professional life. "My father died when I was very young, so I was on free school meals. I was the first in my family to go to university," she says.

Kalar worked in the public sector for nearly two decades before embarking on the entrepreneurial path of consultancy. "I started at HMRC,” she explains. “I had a degree in accountancy and started off as a tax collector.” In this role, Kalar seized the opportunity for a better career.

"I funded myself through the Professional Accountancy scheme from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), and then I moved to work on preparing the financial accounts for HM Customs and Excise before the merger with Inland Revenue," she says. "I was there for about 12 years in many different roles."

Kalar moved to the Home Office on promotion to grade 7 and then moved again to the former Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), now Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. She graduated from the Senior Civil Service Leadership Development programme, working closely with HM Treasury on the whole of government accounts.

"Then austerity came along, and there was a moratorium on promotions for three years. I thought, 'I can't sit around. I have to do something.' And that prompted my decision to leave the civil service."

Outside the civil service, Kalar went on to hold high-profile posts at the sector's top professional bodies, including the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the ACCA, with one objective in mind: to help women behind her unlock their full potential and make sure the public sector reflects the public it serves.

Leadership insights

"My time in the civil service, and the memories I have, are overwhelmingly good," says Kalar. Then, reflecting on working in public finance, she adds: "There's no other job like it, in terms of being able to work on such major projects and really make a difference for people. Even though I have left the civil service, I remain a public finance professional at heart."

Looking back on their time in the civil service, she remembers the barriers to her career progression and the opportunities she took despite the difficulties. "The civil service allowed me to familiarise myself with how government works to deliver change for citizens. That's where my passion for public service comes from," she says.

What challenges did you face in the civil service?

I was working in an open plan office, and when I wanted to go for grade 7, someone said to me: "Don't worry, Manj, you're the right colour, and you're the right sex. You'll go far." Another colleague was standing there, listening to this, and I just shook my head and walked off.

This was 22 years ago, and there were a lot of conscious and unconscious biases. For example, there was the perception that if you looked a certain way, you would have some privilege. However, the reality was very different, people didn't realise how much more difficult it is for someone with my background to progress.

What did you do to overcome these challenges?

I worked incredibly hard, partly because I had to prove myself worthy. Although on reflection, I did not work smart. I thought if I delivered more, I could show I was ready for the next challenge. This is not true. Doing more work only leads to more work being expected.

Another time when I started at DCLG, I approached my director to support my application to the SCS leadership development programme. My director was a strong woman, and she didn't know me. I was new at my role at DCLG, now DLUCH, but I said, 'I'm good at my job. I'm sure I can operate at the SCS level. I just need the chance'. And I completed one of the last programmes at Sunningdale national school for government.

What is your advice for women in public finance experiencing cultural barriers and conscious or unconscious bias in the workplace?

The most important lesson is to build your brand. Consider what you are known for and what you want to be known for. Do key decision-makers know who you are and your career aspirations? If they don’t know, they can’t support you to realise your potential.

So, go ahead, and talk about what you have delivered. This attitude is quite countercultural because women are not used to shouting about themselves, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds, but we must. Do not hide your light under a bushel.

What has been vital to your leadership journey?

Building networks has been critical to my career, as is believing in yourself. I learned many lessons late in my career as I had not appreciated the value of a mentor and the need to invest in myself. Get a coach and mentor/s to help overcome any limiting beliefs and fears.

My advice for women in public finance is to work smart, not hard, and not let fears and limiting beliefs take over. Support one another and do not be afraid to be your authentic self; as Oscar Wilde famously said: 'be yourself, everyone else is taken'.

Gather your colleagues on 22 June and join us for Women in Public Finance London Conference!

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Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Events, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on

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