Where are the women? A gender analysis of the APS Review

By Linda Colley & Sue Williamson

Monday September 16, 2019

“What problem? You’re imagining again.” Getty Images

The biggest review of the Australian Public Service (APS) in 40 years is likely to herald significant changes, particularly for APS employees. As the APS is committed to progressing gender equality, we wondered: what might the review mean for women employees?

The short answer is, we don’t know.

We have recently conducted research examining whether gender and issues of concern to women have been considered in the APS Review to date.

The APS is a female-dominated workforce and is committed to progressing gender equality. This is evident with the release of the Gender Equality Strategy in 2016. Agencies subsequently developed and implemented their own gender equality action plans, some of which are very good.

This renewed focus on gender equality therefore led us to expect that the APS Review would also include a focus on women. We have examined key documents and submissions made by organisations to see how gender equality is being addressed.

The brief Terms of Reference did not mention gender or women. When the APS Review Interim Report was released in March 2019, we again found that gender was invisible. The focus on the workforce did not include any mention of women, gender or diversity. Similarly, no attention was given to those identifying as non-binary.

We examined the submissions to the APS Review, and analysed 77 publicly available submissions from organisations. Only two submissions considered gender equality issues in any meaningful way (from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU)). The remaining submissions were either gender blind or discussed gender in a cursory way, such as listing “women” as one demographic diversity group.

The most common manifestation of gender equality was in discussions about women in leadership. Five organisations cited the proportion of women in their leadership ranks or called for increased numbers of women leaders. As we have found in our research on middle managers’ understanding of gender equality, a tendency exists to conflate numerical parity with equality. This can mask more subtle manifestations of inequality.

Very few organisations—apart from the CPSU and AHRC—considered working arrangements. Of those that did, one agency highlighted their flexible working arrangements, which included Activity Based Working. Another noted the lack of take-up of flexible working arrangements in their agency. Two others encouraged the use of flexible working arrangements to attract staff.

The discussions of flexible working in these submissions were not extensive, and an underlying assumption that flexible working is non-gendered was evident.

Despite a commitment for the APS to be an employer of choice, to date the APS Review has not focused on the largest part of the APS workforce – women. Those submitting to the Review, or course, were under no obligation to do so. But given the importance of the APS Review, it is reasonable to expect those governing the APS review would consider gender issues.

The APS Review is the latest in a long line of public management reforms, and international research has shown that public sector reforms are not renowned for their attention to gender equality.

We have seen an example of this. The APS Gender Equality Strategy was released around the same time as Unlocking Potential, which recommended major reforms that potentially conflicted with the aims of the Gender Equality Strategy.

A failure to incorporate gender equality in public sector reforms not only means that issues of relevance to women are ignored, but that progress already made could be reversed.

The APS Gender Equality Strategy will expire at the end of this year. The APS Review team has an opportunity to not only align policies, but also to embed the initiatives commenced with the APS Gender Equality Strategy, and reinforce initiatives in any forthcoming APS gender equality strategy.

The full article on which this excerpt is based has just been published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration. Linda Colley is an Associate Professor, Human Resource Management/Industrial Relations, at CQUniversity; Sue Williamson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra.

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