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Most of New Zealand’s public service leaders are women

Women now hold the majority of New Zealand’s public service leadership roles for the first time, reports the country’s Minister for State Services, Chris Hipkins.

Hipkins reports 17 of 33 departmental chief executives are now women. The NZ State Services Commission lists only 32 chief executive roles, of which 17 will be filled by women on a permanent or acting basis as of February 4, but the minister also counts the acting chief of the Social Investment Agency, Dorothy Adams.

Yesterday, NZ State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes announced the five-year appointment of diplomat Bernadette Cavanagh as chief executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, effective from February 1, while Debbie Power takes the reigns of the Ministry of Social Development on February 4.

Power’s appointment tips the gender balance further to 18 of 33, but Cavanagh’s new role was already held by a woman, the current acting chief executive Renee Graham. There were 14 women at the top at the end of last June, according to Hipkins.

NZ Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter, says appointing women to the most senior roles was “not only the right thing to do” but she also expects it to improve organisational performance. “More women in leadership means better decision making, better organisational resilience and better performance,” said Genter. “It also opens up more opportunities for women to succeed and contributes to a more inclusive and fairer society.”

“While historically, women have tended to be appointed to smaller jobs, the job size gap is significantly narrowing, with women taking on leadership roles in some of our bigger jobs.”

The ministers say the scale of the chief executive roles held by women has increased by about 15% on average since 2016. At that point in time, they report, the “job size gap” showed male department heads had 27% larger roles on average whereas the gap has narrowed to 6% this year.

Bernadette Cavanagh’s new job at the Ministry of Culture and the Arts, or Manatū Taonga, involves managing an operating budget of $323 million as well as funding and monitoring of 15 entities, according to the State Services Commissioner.

“Ms Cavanagh is a leader who instills trust and confidence and is able to get the best out of people,” he said.

“Ms Cavanagh knows how to build relationships. Her expertise at the international level, and experience in navigating complex issues and delivering results have prepared her for this new role. Ms Cavanagh is an intelligent and compassionate public service leader motivated by the spirit of service.”

Yesterday the commissioner also appointed the acting chief executive of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Crisp, to a five-year term in the role.

The heads of NZ Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Internal Affairs and Justice are all still men, but women now lead in Business, Innovation and Employment, Defence, Inland Revenue, Corrections, the domestic security intelligence service, the solicitor-general’s office, Education and the Statistics agency, to name a few.

Appointing more women into the top jobs is a major plank of the NZ government’s plan to eliminate gender pay gaps for the same public service roles by 2020. One of its goals is to reach gender parity in the top three levels of the public service by the end of next year.

Hipkins said the government wanted to have a public service “with an international reputation for excellence” but also endorsed the idea that it should reflect the diversity of the communities it serves. “We still have work to do but the public service is making positive progress and setting a great example,” he added.

Public service reform in the new year

Last month, the State Services Minister announced NZ’s first Public Service Day, marking the foundation of its modern government bureaucracy in 1912 and provided an update on a process to review its underpinning legislation.

“More than 30 State Sector Act reform public consultation workshops and hui were held around New Zealand in September and October, with more than 300 submissions made.

“These submissions are still being analysed. But we already know that hundreds of people who care about the future of the Public Service took the consultation very seriously and made substantial and well-considered submissions.

“Some groups, such as the Public Service Association and South Island iwi, even ran their own mini-consultations to make sure the voices of their people were heard. The PSA’s collective submission reflects responses from more than 400 members. And the PSA’s Māori rūnanga has also made a separate submission.

“The State Services Commission will give me a full report early in the new year, after which the Government will make decisions. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about law change – it’s about changing the way we work to deliver public services that are effective and relevant to New Zealanders in the modern era.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.