Time for a new generation of APS gender equality policies


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Gender equality in the Australian Public Service (APS) is progressing. One indicator is the increasing number of women in leadership positions, including at the EL2 and SES levels, and also within the rank of Secretaries. This may be due to the implementation of Balancing the Future: the Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2016-19.

A version of this strategy has been adopted by all APS departments, with progress evaluated in 14 of them. The consultants’ findings reiterated our conclusions – that the strategy is reigniting conversations about gender equality. They concluded, however, that there is still some way to go before gender equality in the APS is fully realised.

Many APS Gender Equality Action Plans expire at the end of 2019. Agencies may, therefore, be developing the next generation. Two important questions need to be asked as plans are developed. What might a gender-equitable workplace look like? And, what makes a gender equality plan succeed?

The APS Gender Equality Strategy contains a vision of an equitable workplace. Features include both women and men being seen as ‘credible leaders’, both women and men working flexibly, and the absence of stereotypical ideas about work.

Interest in what a gender equitable workplace might look like is growing. Researchers recently detailed how the physical workspace can contribute to gender equality. Quiet areas (which can be particularly useful for stressed parents), on-site childcare, breastfeeding rooms, warm, green environments and gender neutral bathrooms are all important. APS workplaces undoubtedly have some of these characteristics, but may not have all.

The APS could also look to the recently released Women in STEM Decadal Plan. This plan contains a succinct and evocative vision of gender equality in 2030. Features include a workplace that is free from discrimination, has a diverse leadership, promotes (not just tolerates) flexible working arrangements, and where the progress of gender equality policies is actively monitored and evaluated. A national and co-ordinated approach which can result in accreditation is also envisaged.

Academic research has identified the key elements to progress gender equality. Broad ownership is key, so that plans are owned – and implemented – by everyone, not just human resource departments.

Plans also need to recognise the intersecting disadvantages experienced by some women (and those identifying as women). Best practice plans are also non-binary. Both these elements are becoming more common in the APS, but are not yet the norm.

A long-term view is essential, as are initiatives which build on, and reinforce each other over time. Progressive organisations are creative and disruptive, for example, by using bias interrupters in the workplace. Finally, monitoring and evaluation need to be meaningful, measurable and ongoing, in order to assess progress against clear targets.

A new tranche of APS gender equality policies that builds on previous successes and incorporates best practice will go a long way towards ensuring that the APS is an employer of choice for women. As with progressing gender equality in STEMM, this just might be achievable by 2030.

Dr Sue Williamson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra. She is presenting her research findings and facilitating a workshop at the symposium Strategies for Success: Implementing Gender Workforce Targets in STEMM being held at UTS on 25 July.

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