Behavioural insights could improve diversity in NSW public service, agencies say

By Shannon Jenkins

December 17, 2019

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A group of agencies within the New South Wales Public Service have been exploring ways to remove some of the barriers preventing women from entering senior government roles using behavioural insights.

The Behavioural Insights Unit teamed up with the NSW Public Service Commission, and the Customer Service, Stronger Communities, and Transport Clusters to undertake the research.

They looked at 1.1 million job applications, 500 survey responses and 65 interviews, and found that women reported more barriers to career progression, and greater caring responsibilities outside of work. Women were also more likely to doubt their skills as well as their chance of getting a role, and applied less frequently for roles.

The most commonly cited barrier to career progression in the interviews was family and child-caring commitments, for both men and women. One in three women and almost one in five men identified having children as a barrier to their career progression. 

While men and women interviewees viewed access to flexible work as a “career enabler”, managers’ support for flexibility was more important to women than men. 

The report noted that shifting social norms could help dismantle these barriers.

Previous research from the Behavioural Insights Unit found the obstacles to flexible work were more informal, like manager’s perceptions, than formal — lack of sufficient infrastructure and IT, for example. 

The unit found behavioural insights could tackle the informal yet entrenched behavioural barriers with simple actions that shifted the times employees were starting and ending their workdays. For example, changing default settings in calendars, and implementing manager training and encouragement.

But even when structural, formal barriers have been removed, biases could keep individuals from embracing change, the report noted.

“Behavioural insights can help identify and reduce both formal and informal barriers, and encourage individuals and organisations to embrace the changes needed to achieve gender equality,” it said.

The agencies proposed 10 opportunities to remove some of the obstacles facing women rising to senior roles in the NSW public sector:

  • Remove the possibility for bias in recruitment systems. For example, don’t include identifiable information from CVs,
  • Increase the visibility of, and contact with, female leaders,
  • Shift informal social norms, like subtle cues in calendar settings that reward and sustain a nine-to-five culture,
  • Set KPIs for flexible working,
  • Simplify the job application process to increase the number of applications submitted,
  • Use gender-neutral language in job descriptions,
  • Remove self-evaluation from performance reviews,
  • Encourage women to take up promotional opportunities,
  • Only include essential criteria in job advertisements,
  • Provide comparable and actionable feedback on performance.

READ MORE: Mary Ann O’Loughlin: how I fell in love with policy-making, and figured out what works and the evil problems that don’t

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