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Maintaining the public service’s momentum for gender equality

With International Women’s Day 2019 occurring on Friday, Dr Sue Williamson comments on the importance of sustaining the momentum to ensure gender equality is practiced in Australian workplaces.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “#BalanceforBetter”, to create a “gender balanced” world. The European Institute for Gender Equality defines gender balance as “equal participation of women and men in all areas of work, projects or programmes”. This is a laudable goal, and one which many public services are striving to achieve within their own workforces.

The proportion of women in the leadership positions in the Australian Public Service (APS) continues to increase. Women now make up 45% of those in the senior executive service. Most state public sectors and all the large APS agencies have gender equality strategies. These detail initiatives that aim to further increase the number of women in leadership positions. They also include a range of other important gender equality initiatives, such as enabling both men and women to work flexibly.

However, research conducted by me and my colleagues (Associate Professor Linda Colley, Dr Meraiah Foley and Professor Rae Cooper) shows that while progress is being made, it is being hindered by “gender fatigue”. Gender fatigue includes denying gender inequality is an issue in an organisation.

We have examined managers’ understanding of gender equality. Many told us “gender has been done” or “gender is not an issue here”. This is a simple form of gender fatigue, which is similar to diversity fatigue. It occurs when people are tired of hearing about gender equality (or diversity), of feeling they are required to constantly be “politically correct”, and tired of having to attend ineffective training sessions on gender and diversity.

” It is easy to assume that gender has been ‘done’. But the statistics show that a gender pay gap still exists, even in the public service…”

It is understandable that people are getting a little tired of talking about gender equality—after all, this conversation has been going on for decades. It is easy to assume that gender has been ‘done’. But the statistics show that a gender pay gap still exists, even in the public service, women still do not hold 50% of leadership positions, and women are still clustered in the lower paying, female-dominated occupations such as corporate affairs and human resources.

So, how can organisations overcome gender fatigue? This ennui can be addressed through reinvigorating conversations about gender equality. Many public sector agencies are doing this, as our research has shown. Other initiatives to progress workplace gender equality include sharing stories, leadership and role modelling, and explaining the business case for equality and diversity. There is no shortage of solutions for practitioners.

It is necessary, however, to be mindful that for lasting change, gender-equality policies need to be continually monitored and evaluated against discrete targets, and include initiatives that build on and reinforce each other over an extended period of time.


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Conversations about gender equality need to be continually refreshed. We have seen this occurring in public sector jurisdictions, where organisations are now talking about White Ribbon and applying for accreditation. The New Zealand public sector is also focusing on pay equity, as a way of focusing on gender equality more broadly. These are good approaches. They not only serve as a lever to progress gender equality, but will have long-lasting benefits for both men and women, thereby contributing to “gender balance”.

Note: This article has been adapted from a recent address given by Dr Williamson, as President of the Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand.

Author Bio

Sue Williamson

Lecturer, Human Resource Management, UNSW Canberra/Australian Defence Force Academy.