Opinion: how all women succeed in the public sector

By Apolitical

Friday November 27, 2020


What does it mean to succeed as a woman in the public sector?

The recent article 7 things I wish I’d known about succeeding as a woman, written by another member of Apolitical, presents one idea of success — professional achievement and seniority on an individual level. This is not the only — or even the best — definition of success.

For women in the public sector, success should be inclusive and transformative, about community over competition. Our pathways to success — even individual success — should not come at the expense of others’ opportunities.

Compared to many public service jurisdictions, the Victorian public sector is in a different place. Sixty-seven per cent of Victoria’s public sector workforce identify as women, although this is inequitably spread across roles and industries; with every increase in seniority in the public services, there is a lower proportion of women filling these roles.

As of 2017 (the last published data) 48% of Victorian Public Service executives are women, and our department, DHHS, leads the way with 65% women executives.

And it is not luck, fate or chance that got us to where we are. As well as systematic commitments at a government level to increase the representation of women in senior roles, we as women in the public sector are benefiting from the effort of those who came before us and, therefore, we have a duty to both those we follow and those who may follow us to continue to shift the dial towards greater equality in the workplace.

Organisational culture is not inherent, it is designed by the collective actions we all take every day.

7 tips — reframed

For this reason, we take a very different perspective to the original author about what it means to “succeed” as a woman in the public sector.

There are two ways to get to the other side of the “glass ceiling” — you can learn to perform a convincing approximation of a man and make the glass ceiling your floor, or you can completely smash it and clear it away both for yourself and for everyone else. Our idea of success, particularly as public servants, includes not only advancement to senior roles and professional authority, but leaving the workplace, and the world, better than when we found it, which includes creating a legacy based not on ego but community.

Therefore, we present our feminist responses to the 7 tips provided by the author. We offer our response as constructive criticism in the hope we can all learn and grow:

[Editor’s note: for context, we have included the points from the original article first, followed by the response from the authors of this article].

1. Work on your imposter syndrome

Yes, we all struggle with the idea that we are not good enough for the job we have or the meeting/conference presentation we’ve been invited to. Know you are not alone in thinking that, but start working on eliminating this self-perception. Start giving yourself credit for your achievements. Learn to accept compliments about your work. Start working on really being assertive about what you offer your institution, organisation and the people you work for.

We agree. Sometimes our self-perception is our worst enemy. And as the original author says, “know you are not alone in thinking that”.

Combatting imposter syndrome is not something you need to do alone. Build a network in which you can create a safe space to talk about how you are personally progressing in this space. As well as giving yourself credit and learning to accept compliments, you can help others overcome imposter syndrome by giving credit to others, by giving compliments on their work and performance — and publicly where appropriate! It takes practice to accept credit and compliments with confidence and grace — so a genuine compliment really is the gift that gives twice.

2. Map key actors

As soon as you assume a leadership position (and ideally before this happens), start making a map of key actors. Identify their backgrounds, interests and incentives. Make sure to understand any existing disagreements or tensions. It is crucial you start identifying who could be your allies and who could be your detractors as you lead them to deliver the results that are expected of you and your team. The Role Mapping technique may be a useful one.

We agree. While understanding the dynamics of the context you are working in is important, we don’t place too much emphasis on navigating through “office politics“.

As you recognise players who may make a key difference such as leaders, policy-makers and key influencers, also map key actors who might benefit from your support. Use your knowledge of influential forces in your workplace to connect others within your field. We consider this to have a greater impact on changing workplaces for the better.

3. Learn to use symbolism

Exerting influence and power rests a lot on symbolic acts, or behaviours that help the team understand you as their leader. You must learn to use these symbols from the beginning. Some examples of these include, for instance, calling meetings first, and calling them into your office (instead of going to other colleagues’ offices) and having difficult conversations with those who have rudely challenged your leadership in your office, with your desk between you and them. A more positive reinforcement meanwhile could be sending a handwritten thank you note to an employee who was successful in delivering her work.

We do not agree. Everyone brings their own style of leadership to a role, and this approach perpetuates traditional hierarchical power dynamics and structures. It should not be the burden of women, or any uncommon voice, to put their natural style aside and learn to play the game by someone else’s rules.

If you are “performing” as you think a leader should, rather than leading authentically, how will you ever overcome that imposter syndrome? If you want to transform spaces both for yourself and other people, you need to start doing things differently and model behaviours that normalise a plurality of leadership styles.

4. Arrive early

Get to the office before everyone else, so you can catch up on your work and, going back to the symbolic theme, show your staff, colleagues and supervisors that you are on top of things. Quieter time in the office gives you the chance to connect with the team and review details about projects or policies you are leading that you wouldn’t be able to review otherwise. It is also strategic to show up early to meetings and other public events. This gives you the chance to “work the room”, namely meeting and greeting staff and colleagues (after all, it is all about people and the people you know!), as well as addressing any pending issues to do with projects and activities that require others’ involvement in an informal setting.

We strongly do not agree. Getting in early, and any performative work which is done to “show your staff, colleagues and supervisors that you are on top of things” is undermining the value of your time and perpetuating the idea that women have to work twice as hard, yell twice as loud, and be twice as good to be considered equivalent to even a mediocre man in the office.

Consider the power dynamics you are perpetuating for others, particularly those who may not have the privilege, for whatever reason, of working those extra hours. Instead, we say become and advocate for your own preferred working hours. Work as flexibly as you need to and as the requirements of your role allow.

Your staff, colleagues and supervisors will learn that your time is the most precious commodity in the workplace, and they will respect it. Become a champion for flexibility in your workplace — extol the benefits of flexible working and normalise that flexible working and leadership are perfectly compatible, paving the way for others to follow your lead and do the same.

5. Learn to use social media

Professional visibility can be achieved using social media. Granted, some government institutions, and inter-governmental organisations have certain rules about social media use, but a lot of influential people in these realms use it (Twitter mostly, but also LinkedIn and Instagram) to communicate their work. Don’t be afraid to use these tools. Social media presents many challenges, but for women in positions of influence, I see it as an equaliser in terms of projecting your personal image and professional results. Disclaimer: You do have to know how to calibrate social media use, because as women, we face a different set of standards when we expose our work and ourselves. In this regard, too much exposure, or at least comparative to men in equivalent positions, often means we will have to confront resistance, criticism and questions about our ambition and goals.

We do not agree. In our workplace, unless social media is part of your official role you are not permitted to post work-related content on social media. Particularly as public servants, we have discomfort in the idea of self-promotion, and need most importantly to remain apolitical.

Essentially, we place this idea in the bucket of performative work; the extra work we feel we need to do to constantly demonstrate that we are as good as men. And we tip this bucket straight into the bin.

6. Learn the domination techniques and call them out

Yes, women are subject to domination techniques. These were defined by Norwegian sociologist Berit As (1981) as “conscious and unconscious strategies used to assume power over others”, and are based on the assumption that women and men are valued differently and that men, as a group, generally have a higher status. As mapped out 7 of these including: making invisible, ridiculing, withholding information, double-binding, heaping blame and putting to shame, objectifying, and its most violent expression: use of force, or threats of force. Learn more about them so you can identify them when they are happening to you, and build the courage to call them out. Finding allies prepared to do this with you is also a good strategy.

We agree. As well as the domination techniques listed in the article, we would encourage women to learn and look out for conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace — microaggression and discriminative behaviour can occur even when the perpetrator is not conscious of what they are doing.

We absolutely agree with the author’s suggestion of “finding allies to [call them out] with you” — within the safe space of our network we have discussed how we call these out, what words we use, and collaborated on how we would respond to hypothetical scenarios. There is a cognitive and emotional burden to take on this task, but it is eased with a supportive network you can consult with (and also vent with after!). And remember, domination techniques, conscious and unconscious bias are not uniquely aimed at women; you can, and should, call out these behaviours when you see them to whomever they are directed.

7. Network the smart way

And if you can, seek a sponsor. Networking has to continue to be part of your day to day even if you have achieved a position of influence. You must always be thinking how best to deliver on the results that are expected of you, and it is networks, connections and ultimately people, that help you do that. It may also be useful for the next professional move. If you are able to connect with someone who may be willing to vouch for you, to push your name when names are being sought, even better. Although these relationships can sometimes be transactional, in my experience, the relationships that last and the ones that go the longest way are those focused on the person: in other words, when you approach them because you genuinely care, and seek to learn from them.

We agree … kind of. We are all about building networks, but the best networks are not just there to serve you.

Using networks to deliver results and get your next job is behaviour that inherently limits opportunities for others and can undermine transparent and merit-based recruitment practices. The original author only focuses on building self-serving relationships, however, the networks we advocate you build create space for others as well as yourself. If you are going to get a sponsor, you should also try to be a sponsor.

If you are in a position of leadership, look behind you for those who might be trying to follow in your footsteps, and make sure the paths you are clearing are ones they can take too. If you have a platform, use it not only for yourself but to create the opportunities for others you wish had been there for you.

Let’s continue to build the path to better futures: let’s bring our authentic selves to work, embrace diversity, promote inclusion and support each other to succeed. Yes, this is a way of being that requires courage. But we hope that the position that women take in the Victorian Public Sector can be an inspiration and motivation to others. It is worth the effort.

This article is written by the Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) Network at the Department of Health and Human Services, Victoria, Australia. It is the opinion of members of the network and does not represent the official opinion of the Victorian Government.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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