Flexible work arrangements: easy for SES to say, harder for ELs to do


New research tracking the APS gender equality strategy confirms flexible work isn’t as easy for mid-level managers to implement as it is for senior leaders to champion the idea, and finds pockets of old-school sexism alive and well.

The Australian Public Service gender equality strategy has the necessary commitment from senior leaders, but managers further down the line may need more support to make its aspirations a reality.

Strong, unambiguous messaging from the top layers of leadership is important for any new workplace policy to have effect, but fine words about “changing culture through leadership, flexibility, and innovation” are really just the beginning.

Researcher Sue Williamson, who has just begun a study tracking the new strategy, has already observed “a gap between the policy and implementation which kicks in around the EL2 or EL1 level” in two large APS agencies. She found senior executives have done their part and given strong support to the strategy, but busy mid-level managers are struggling to implement new measures — the new flexible work arrangements that are now supposed to be the default — in particular.

“Senior managers are really committed, and then when you get to the EL2 level, you have line managers that have the pressure from below of managing their team, and they’ve got the pressure from above to get the work done, and they’re finding it difficult to implement flexible working arrangements,” Williamson told The Mandarin.

“Lots of them are doing it really well, but one of the things that came through and that I was quite surprised about is people are still quite resistant to part-time working.”

The plan is to run a longitudinal study by looking at progress annually, over the strategy’s 2016-2019 timeline. Williamson, a senior lecturer in human resource management at UNSW Canberra Business School, has conducted about 150 interviews and focus groups so far and is looking for more subjects. The first stage of her project, which she presented at a recent academic conference in Canberra, focused on two agencies and offers three recommendations for APS mandarins.

One is that the new policy could be bolstered with a greater practical understanding of the reality that organisational culture change generally occurs very slowly. Balancing the Future, which the APS commission launched in April last year, is a “really good document” in Williamson’s view, but would benefit from more practical guidance on how the desired changes will occur incrementally over the longer term, she said.

“What do we need to do now? What do we need to do in six months? And how do we get the whole workforce involved — not just HR writing a domestic violence policy and then telling EL2s about it — it’s how do we get buy-in from all across the organisation?”

“And that’s really slow, it takes years, and it’s hard for public service agencies to think in those terms when they’re thinking about [things like] the end of the financial year, what money they need to spend now, rather than, how can they build this program that rolls along for three years to get a more gender equitable culture?”

She also recommends gender equity still needs to be “mainstreamed” throughout APS policies and recommendations. The whole human resources chain from recruitment to performance management and career development should be viewed through a “gender lens” — but that doesn’t mean the strategy should be seen as something that’s mainly for HR to worry about, she contends.

A third recommendation — which would require legislative amendments — is to extend the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s remit to cover the APS so agencies would report to WGEA on their progress, as private sector employers with more than 100 employees must do annually.

According to the APSC, agency heads are accountable for meeting the gender quality employment targets contained in the strategy, which aim for an eventual 50-50 gender split, via their performance agreements. But this is not a public form of accountability and it’s not clear how much weight it has among their other KPIs.

Williamson sees greater accountability through WGEA more as something for government to think about in the longer term, but she believes the public service needs to be more accountable for implementing the finer points of the strategy like job flexibility and says there are no obvious levers to make sure they are not just paying lip service to the concept.

Get the tea and biscuits, darl

Williamson was “quite surprised” to find some very old-fashioned gender roles live on in parts of the two organisations.

“I worked in the APS for 12 years and it’s a great place to work and I think it’s at the forefront of family-friendly and female-friendly [policies], but there were pockets in some of the agencies as well where they were still quite a male-dominated, blokey culture.

“And women would talk to me about being called ‘girl’ — it is quite surprising that that sort of language is still used.”

Sue Williamson

She was also surprised to see women in some teams are still doing all the “office housework” like photocopying and putting out refreshments for meetings, and the men don’t seem to realise certain tasks are clearly divided along gender lines.

“I’d always thought it was the grads who put the water on the table for meeting and things like that, but employees I was talking to were saying no, it’s the women who do it. The male grads will sit there on their computer and they’ll do the policy work [ahead of a meeting] and it’s the women who will set up the room.

“That perpetuates gendered labour in the workplace, and it’s really subtle but it’s a really good example of how organisations are gendered — even in the public service, which is really progressive.”

Could it be that such old-fashioned conservative attitudes are resurging everywhere, as part of the clear backlash to progressive politics — modern third-wave feminism in particular — that is being seen in Australia around the world? Williamson doesn’t think so.

“No, I think it’s dying out, but I think there are some pockets that are just the old-school, traditional public service where it’s not as consultative with employees, it doesn’t focus on employee welfare as much, employees aren’t included in decision-making, it’s more bureaucratic and a stricter hierarchical style.

“And that kind of old-fashioned, traditional public service workplace still can have condescending attitudes towards women.”

The crunch point

The flipside of middle managers struggling to deal with the practical implications of flexible work arrangements, which involves re-allocating tasks to make sure all the work still gets done at the very least, is that employees are also reluctant to ask for them.

“[Managers are] not taking the time to think about how to restructure the jobs because they are under pressure, and it also comes from the female employees; it’s mostly women who are saying these things to me, that a lot of them aren’t asking to become part-time because they’re afraid that they’ll get knocked back,” said Williamson.

The purpose of flexibility is not just to enable people to have families and careers at the same time. The point is to change the culture so that nobody, male or female, should feel they have to work inhumanly long hours and give 110% of their heart and soul to the boss for decades to prove themselves worthy of promotion to executive level.

The grade before the senior executive service — EL2 — appears as the “crunch point when all these issues coalesce” to Williamson. She found the belief that going part-time cuts off any chance of making it to EL2 level is still accepted wisdom in parts of the public service.

“Lots of women have been faced with the situation of, well, you can go part-time, have your kids, but you won’t ever get to the EL2 level, or it’ll be delayed. Or, you become an EL2, and then maybe you can think about having kids.”

Part-time work or working from home, much like being in a regional outpost, can also limit promotion and professional development opportunities, because it means the employee is less visible to their branch head.

Williamson thinks this disproportionately affects women because they are less likely to self-promote and confidently put themselves forward for promotion. A lot of women say that about themselves, and a lot of managers say that about women.

Unconscious bias towards the most visible employees is clearly linked to presenteeism, which is also alive and well in parts of the APS, and the most visible roles of all are still seen as best suited to single men, in some agencies.

“There are some areas in departments that are the high-tempo areas working on government priorities, stuff the minister wants done immediately … and that can be seen to be more suitable to a bloke who doesn’t have a family, who can work the long hours, who can work on weekends,” Williamson said.

“And some managers I spoke to still had the assumption that if a woman had a family or was working part-time then she wouldn’t be available to work on weekends to meet that deadline.”