Is a new era in public sector gender equality upon us?

By Sue Williamson

December 8, 2021

small 'male equals female' sign at a protest march
This strategy sets a robust roadmap on how to achieve APS gender equality. (1STunningART/Adobe)

Just as the year commenced with a focus on gender equality in public institutions, the year is closing with a similar focus. This time, however, there is a relatively positive story to tell.

The Australian government has just released the Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2021-26: Realising the benefits for all. While the APS is tracking well on gender equality, the strategy notes that further action is needed, including to combat “everyday sexism”.

The previous strategy was rather piecemeal, as I argued in 2017. The new strategy, however, adopts a holistic approach to overcoming barriers experienced by employees of all genders, but particularly women and those identifying as women.

The strategy covers six action areas. These are presented as ‘minimum standards’ and are seen as a starting point. This is a good approach, as organisations are increasingly being encouraged to assess their progress against roadmaps, or diversity maturity models.

The minima are:

  1. Leadership and accountability – with a strong focus on increasing inclusive leadership
  2. Respectful workplaces – to prevent and address sexual harassment and domestic violence
  3. Shifting gender stereotypes – particularly to overcome unconscious biases in recruitment and selection
  4. Flexible ways of working – with an emphasis on gender neutral flexible working policies
  5. Collecting gender data – monitoring and evaluating the implementation of initiatives in the strategy and publishing results
  6. leveraging external influence – which includes ensuring procurement is with suppliers that are compliant with the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012.

There are several aspects of the strategy which embody best practice. Firstly, the strategy is underpinned by principles of inclusion, as well as equality. Adopting an inclusive approach can assist in overcoming resistance to gender equality – it ensures that everyone is on board.

Secondly, the strategy is also informed by theories of intersectionality. This approach recognises that individuals can experience multiple forms of disadvantage based on the intersection of multiple dimensions of identity. The Strategy specifically encourages agencies to implement initiatives targeted to employees of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and those of diverse age, cultural and linguistic background, abilities, and sexualities.

Thirdly, the strategy requires agencies to report on progress. APS agencies will be required to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) from 2022-23. The Australian government made this commitment in its Roadmap for Respect report released earlier this year. This is a major advance. The public sector has traditionally been exempt from the Workplace Gender Equality Act and it has therefore been difficult to ascertain how much progress has been made in securing gender equality.

Fourthly, the strategy aims to normalise conversations and actions around gender equality. My colleagues and I have found that gender fatigue exists within the public sector. The strategy contains initiatives and suggestions to keep the conversations alive within agencies and across the APS.

A couple of other initiatives are also worth mentioning. As Australia embarks on a national conversation about targets in political parties, the APS strategy encourages agencies to consider whether specific targets should be introduced. As well as the use of targets to drive change, the strategy also encourages agency agencies to use “nudges”, such as “a visible Internet campaign highlighting senior men caring for elderly relatives or taking parental leave”. Gender equality experts have long recommended the use of nudges to progress behavioural change.

Regulatory change is also planned, with the strategy committing the APS to reviewing current parental leave arrangements. The current bargaining strategy and relevant legislation would also be considered as parental leave arrangements are reviewed.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins stated last week that the recommendations in the Set the Standard report should be implemented as a whole package. Similarly, while the APS Strategy recognises that there will be some variation between agencies, implementing this as a holistic package will assist in progressing gender equality, and build on current gains.

While there is much work to be done in progressing gender equality in the APS, this strategy sets a robust roadmap on how to achieve this laudable, and essential, aim.

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