Why a ‘blokey’ Tasmanian department got an anti-discrimination exemption


Can positive discrimination co-exist with the merit principle? A Tasmanian deputy secretary believes it can and says it’s entirely legitimate for employers to assess job candidates on the basis of intrinsic qualities like gender.

The Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment is already seeing more women join its ranks and move into senior roles as staff work through a slightly controversial plan to improve gender balance, which was only finalised last October.

There’s 33% more women on the executive, 15% more female senior executive officers, and 4% more women in managerial roles with salaries over $100,000 compared to June 30, 2015, which is about when DPIPWE leaders started looking at increasing the gender diversity of its ‘blokey’ workforce.

The number of women among new recruits has also increased 17% over the same period, according to the deputy secretary responsible for corporate management, Tim Baker.

“Less than 20% of our staff who earned over $100,000 were female, and we’ve been applying the so-called merit principle for the last 40 years.”

One step from the action plan — setting aside a very small number of management cadetships for women — made the front page of the local tabloid, which focused on the fact that DPIPWE had to get an exemption from the state’s anti-discrimination commission to run the small number of female-only cadetships, suggesting this set a precedent for more positive discrimination in the state service.

The department has set aside six management cadetships for women to start with, increasing to nine the following year, up to a maximum of 12 rotating through the program at any one time, Baker explained, and that’s in a workforce of about 1500. The very small number of female management cadet roles do not add to the department’s normal intake of entry-level staff, making the measure cost-neutral.

Of course, the idea of employers putting a finger on the scales of diversity is hardly new and controversial, and any new affirmative action policy elsewhere would be considered by the anti-discrimination commission on its own merits. As Baker points out, even though it’s the first gender-based exemption, agencies have got the same green light for small-scale positive discrimination to increase Indigenous representation in the past.

“The focus of the program is on management so, unlike other cadet programs which are focused on other professional skills, like accounting or economics in the Treasury space, you need to be doing a management degree and you need to demonstrate that you want to be a future senior leader in our organisation,” Baker told The Mandarin.

“And it’s not just about the study that you do. We also provide on-the-job training in management and management techniques, and … experience in management roles over the three years of the program.”

Cadet roles are mainly aimed at external applicants, given they are at the lowest grade, but Baker said quite a few staff had spoken up and expressed an interest and it is possible to get credit for experience and start as a second year cadet.

“We were heavily oversubscribed for the first year and we’re expecting to be even more oversubscribed this year as we’re get more and more people interested in the program,” he said.

Affirmative action

The principle of affirmative action remains controversial, because it seems to suggest the best candidates won’t necessarily get ahead. This view has been expressed by some DPIPWE staff, including some women, throughout the development of the action plan and not everyone is on board with the growing view of workforce diversity as a business imperative.

But, similar to the view of Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin, Baker believes the outcomes from decades of supposedly merit-based recruitment and promotion decisions speak for themselves.

“Less than 20% of our staff who earned over $100,000 were female, and we’ve been applying the so-called merit principle for the last 40 years.

“That says to me that the way we’ve been applying merit doesn’t work, because you cannot tell me that that’s a real reflection on the skills and ability of women in the workplace.”

He argues it is legitimate for an employer to choose staff on the basis of how their appointment would affect overall diversity, not just on their skills and experience, based on the theory that more diversity equals higher performance.

In his expanded view of the merit principle, intrinsic characteristics like gender should be a factor when considering who is the best person for the job, and this could also favour a male applying for a job in a workplace dominated by women.

“If we had a team that had nine women in it, all the research says that the more diverse that that team is, the higher that team will perform,” he said.

“So from my point of view, it is applying a merit-based approach to want to get more diversity into that team of nine women. So if you had two candidates who were very equally ranked and one of them was male, it would make sense … that you would appoint the male into that team, because the more diverse that team is, the better it’s going to perform.”

Action plan well underway

Baker revealed a draft of the gender action plan to The Mandarin last February, and it was finalised late last year. The goal is to complete all the actions by 2020 and he says they are on track to meet the deadline.

“We have two full time staff working on the gender equality program, one at a manager level and one at a project officer level, and we’ve got a steering committee which includes most of the executive, so it is a high priority issue for us,” he said.

“If you work in our department and you don’t think we’ve got a problem with gender, then we haven’t explained it to you well enough, because there is absolutely a problem.”

Going through the various steps in the plan, “guiding principles” on gender equality have been finalised, new training that will “provide a basic overview of key concepts” underpinning the new policies will begin soon, and a new KPI has been added to the performance framework for senior managers.

“That’s not about a target,” Baker said. “That’s about once a year, the manager sits down as part of their performance review and says: ‘This is what I’ve done to help with gender equality.’

“That will go into senior managers’ performance reviews for the next cycle.”

Plans for flexible work arrangements are well advanced and Baker is lining up a consultant to help with one of the bigger, more complicated pieces of the strategy — a fundamental overhaul of recruitment and promotion practices.

Beyond the female cadetships, another action that will take a bit longer is to establish a separate leadership acceleration program for women, along the lines of Deloitte’s Inspiring Women model.

Baker said the gender equality team were not rushing in as they had seen mixed results from looking at other female-focused leadership programs in both the public and private spheres, but hoped to have advice to take to the executive in the next six months.

“There is a real legitimate school of thought that the leadership program should be for men and women but, you know, we spoke to our staff and they’ve asked us to investigate it, and that’s what we’re doing,” he added.

Wearing down the resistance

The action plan notes “one significant divergence” between the sexes at DPIPWE emerged from the staff “workshops” that informed the draft plan: “Despite making up 58% of employees, only 27% of registered workshop participants were male.”

“There does remain resistance to improving gender equality in DPIPWE and some employees don’t believe the change is necessary, or don’t consider it to be a priority,” said Baker. “That still stands, and to me, that’s part of the challenge that we’ve got to deal with.”

“If you work in our department and you don’t think we’ve got a problem with gender, then we haven’t explained it to you well enough, because there is absolutely a problem.”

He adds that some “resistance” is always to be expected when leaders start talking about “transformational change” in a large organisation like DPIPWE.

Still, he says “the vast majority of staff” agree with the plan and want to see the change. “And that is a credit to our department, to be honest — there are lot of men in our department who want to see better gender equality and I think that’s a great thing.”

As for the rest who are expected to get with the program, he will continue to “work on their hearts and minds” to convince them that the changes need to happen.

“And the best way for us to continue to change the culture in our organisation is to continue to get strong, high-performing women into the department because all that does is demonstrate the value of having a diverse workplace,” said Baker.

  • Philip Mussared

    No comments on this article?/ The readers of the Mandarin must be more enlightened than the readers of the Hobart Mercury which has been publishing letters of complaint and protest since the decision of the Anti-Discrimination Commission was publicly announced. Apparently local men are worried that the eventual outcome will be incompetent bosses – something that never happens when a man is appointed!