How can women have greater impact in the public sector?

By Julia May & Sarah Anderson

Tuesday March 10, 2020

Emma* works in a senior leadership role in a state government department of health. An experienced manager in health industries, she moved into government five years ago because she wanted to be able to shift the dial on population health policy in her state.

Technically, her role, which involves leading public-private partnerships and collaboration with some of the key health researchers in the state, should allow her to do that. In reality, it doesn’t.

Emma, like many women in government, is frustrated by the overtly hierarchical culture of government; one that is driven by a fear of failure (and negative publicity) rather than an outcomes-orientation or a long-term focus.

She says pressure to “keep your head down – don’t rock the boat” and micro-management by her (all-male) senior managers diminishes her influence and effectiveness. Despite positive feedback from her direct reports on her leadership style, she’s now looking for new roles — outside of government where she feels she can have greater impact.

Emma’s story is sadly very common. We’ve heard similar stories from thousands of women about how the system hampers women, in our work running programs and in leading Homeward Bound, a global leadership initiative for women with a background in STEMM.

The statistics are clear: despite there being more women (59%) than men in the Australian Public Service (and equal representation of women and men in the societies they serve), women are still significantly underrepresented at nearly all levels of government — from parliament down.

The impact of this absence of women leaders goes beyond being an equity issue: the research shows that women consistently outperform men in most leadership capabilities — particularly areas critical to organisational culture and decision-making — such as driving for results, developing others, championing change and innovation.

This means that everyone working in government — men and women — and, by default — the electorate, miss out due to the invisibility of women leaders in government. Put another way: we would all benefit if more of the 59% of women in the public service were visible leaders.

Visibility: being self-aware, being seen and heard by others, having influence with stakeholders and engaging strategically for wider impact, is a significant and underestimated enabler of women’s leadership. Research has shown this. But it’s not a straightforward proposition: the structural barriers obstructing women are formidable.

As the watershed 2013 report, Not Yet 50/50: the Barriers to the Progress of Senior Women in the Australian Public Service, showed, male-dominated departments favour masculine social and leadership behaviours, making it difficult for women to fit in and lead authentically; negative perceptions about the impact of family commitments on women’s productivity abound; and unconscious bias, a lack of role models and the resultant lack of advancement have a compound effect on women’s confidence.

The list of barriers might be long, but we know and see in our work with leaders that when women are supported with the will and skills to be visible, and can build safe and strong relationships with other senior women leaders, their capacity to tackle those structural barriers and have more impact as leaders is markedly accelerated. And when those changes are enabled, relationships, teams, organisations and wider systems are able to shift too.

However, “visibility” is not what it might seem to be. Authentic, impactful and lasting visible leadership starts with understanding that there are three pillars of visibility:

  1. Visibility to self: enhancing self-awareness through a leadership audit, values and vision; unpacking and reframing leadership mindset.
  2. Visibility to others: using strategic communications tools and techniques to improve engagement in every setting — from conversations and meetings through to writing and presentations. Having insight into learning and communication styles to support leaders to understand themselves and others better, and hone their influencing skills: useful in work within teams, across departments and building influence at senior levels (as well in families and communities).
  3. Collective visibility: Using your individual visibility as a platform to support others: for causes, social impact, and for interpersonal influence and contribution. In our programs, leaders are supported to build a community of practice, with the establishment of a safe, online space to continue collaborating and supporting each other.

What does visibility mean, overall, in a government context? As Emma says: “Being visible in government isn’t necessarily about being on social media or building a public profile. It’s about building internal influence. Being visible is not comfortable and a lot of the time, it’s not easy. If you’re not visible there’s no risk, but you’ll never achieve anything.”

*Real name withheld for privacy

Visibility Co and The Mandarin are partnering on a series of visibility masterclasses for women in government, kicking off in Sydney at the end of March. Our vision is to facilitate a community of talented women leaders with the will and skills to be more visible and to support each other as they step out into greater leadership and impact. We will welcome women from local, state and federal governments, agencies and even those who work with and collaborate with government to join us. For more information, click here .

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