What women want: survey shines light on workplace culture in NSW public sector

By Shannon Jenkins

November 13, 2020

group of women looking upward
There is no such thing as the ‘universal woman’. (moodboard/Adobe)

Women working in the New South Wales public sector found working from home during COVID-19 allowed them to get more work done and better balance care responsibilities, according to the Public Service Association’s What Women Want survey.

The union’s first ever large-scale survey of women in the state public sector polled more than 5000 members during the first-half of 2020.

The majority of respondents work for the Department of Education (34.4%), followed by the Department of Communities and Justice (30.77%), the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (8.63%) and the Department of Customer Service (6.24%).

Flexible work, pay equity, mental health and resilience, career progression, bullying and harassment, and superannuation were identified as the key issues for public sector women. The flexible work arrangement most important to respondents was the ability to access leave when needed (81.62%), followed by having flexible work hours (80.05%), and the ability to work from home or off site during normal work hours (52.79%).

The survey found about 56% of women have requested access to flexible working arrangements of some kind, but more than 12.5% of their requests have been refused. For 19.94% of those who were refused flexible work, no reason for this refusal was given. For the rest, reasons included ‘operational requirements’ (41.64%) and ‘other’ (38.42%).

According to the PSA, some of the reasons respondents believed they were denied flexible work included that the employer thought it would set a precedent, or that it was only available for medical reasons. Others said they have never requested flexible work because “it’s been made clear this will not be accepted”, or because the possibility of flexible work has never been discussed.

Many respondents felt work-at-home arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed them to get more work done, feel more effective, and find a better balance of care responsibilities.

PSA general secretary Stewart Little noted COVID-19 has done away with many old fashioned ideas about office-based productivity.

“It’s clear the women of NSW’s public service want to see this flexibility continue,” he said.

“What concerns us is that the experience of public sector women isn’t reflecting the policies in place. Women were telling us up until COVID-19 securing consistent work from home and other flexible options were often rejected, or looked upon with suspicion.

“Meaningful flexible work for women isn’t about taking Zoom meetings at home. It is about making work fit with the reality of women’s lives — such as offering more job sharing and part-time roles.”

The survey highlighted issues with managers and their role in regards to flexible work. While some managers and supervisors were praised for their approach, others were identified as the cause of flexible work being denied.

“Survey respondents are aware that some managers often confuse work performance with work location, and that extra reporting against performance ‘milestones’ was a price worth paying to work at home and better manage unpaid care responsibilities and pandemic safety,” the report said.

“It is clear more work needs to be done to provide managers with the tools to properly respond to flexibility requests, and streamlined processes for making those requests.”

Read more: Flexible working and the pandemic: more than just working from home

The thing public sector women like the most about their jobs is the work they do, the survey found.

“A strong sense of service was clear — in that respondents said they liked helping customers and finding solutions for them in these difficult times, liked working with inmates, liked working with children with behavioural issues, that they liked that they were able to pick up work where needed to help out due to the bushfires or COVID-19. ‘Giving back to the community’ was a clear theme,” the report said.

More than half of respondents have been with their current employer for 10 years or more, and 73.02% of respondents were over the age of 45. Most respondents were in ongoing employment (84.73%), with 86.16% employed full-time, and 13.84% employed part-time.

While more than 56% of survey respondents said they felt secure or very secure in their jobs, the union expects this to change in the next survey, as many responses were received before COVID-19 began to impact workplaces.

“All responses were received before the NSW government elected to freeze public servant pay, before the disability employers started to restructure out our higher paid privatised former ADHC members, and before the federal government refused to properly support our tertiary education sector through the pandemic,” the report said.

“We know that austerity policies like those adopted in freezing wages have a highly gendered effect … such cuts impact women more because women are more likely to use public services, and more likely to work in the public sector. Women are more likely to do the unpaid work to compensate for cuts in services — such as caring for children or older family members — with consequences for their own employment and earnings.”

More than a third (36.91%) of survey respondents have regular caring responsibilities, and 32.11% have at least one dependent child under the age of 18. The report noted women are more likely to reduce their hours of work and limit their career progression to accommodate caring responsibilities.

“This unpaid care work is a key driver of workforce gender inequality,” it said.

Prison officer Nicole Jess said that if women could job-share more easily, it would make it easier for them to return from maternity leave, or work part-time.

“Prisons are long term, secure work — but we need to make the availability of work there more flexible. If women could job-share or more easily go part-time that would be a huge plus,” she said.

“We also need to see more women promoted into managerial roles, so that we can have more diversity in who is leading our prisons and managing officers.”

The current gender pay gap within the NSW government is 2.2%, or $2002 on a median salary. However, this may disguise a trend, with fewer women in senior positions. The significant gender pay gap has remained a concern to the union, Little said.

“Women were telling us the wage gaps persists because men are appointed to the high-paid positions. But there are also systemic problems, where female-dominated sectors are underpaid,” he said.

Other key survey findings included:

  • Most respondents feel either extremely safe (22.82%) or safe (52.39%) at work,
  • Just over 43% of members have experienced bullying in the workplace in the past 12 months. The majority (54.76%) of survey respondents did not report it. Of those that did, almost 62% were not satisfied with the response,
  • Almost 7% have experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months. Of those, almost 77% did not report it, and more than 52% of those who did receive a response were unhappy with it.

Just 5.17% of survey respondents identify as a person with disability, with the union noting the NSW public service “has a very poor record on employing people with disability”.

“Given that 4 million Australians, or around 18% of the population, have a disability, this percentage is well below what we could expect on a population-average level,” the report said.

“The number of workers with disability employed by Australia’s largest employer, our public service, has declined steadily for over a decade. While in 2019 it ‘levelled out’ at 2.5%, this is well below even the low ‘Premier’s Priority’ target of 5.6%.”

In regards to cultural background, the majority of respondents identify as Anglo-Celtic, followed by European. The research found strong support for diversity, but respondents identified “a lack of top-down support for diversity and inclusion”.

While 6.28% of respondents identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, “these numbers are not the full story, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and employees not reporting positively on what working in our industry is like”, the report said.

Read more: NSW Public Service Commission-backed research shows flexible work benefits


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