Gains shouldn’t overshadow challenges, say public sector experts on International Women’s Day

By Jackson Graham

March 8, 2022

The APS proportionally employs more women than the wider labour force yet the gender pay gap remains skewed towards men. (Adobe/ Monkey Business)

The Australian Public Service is edging closer to achieving gender parity in some of its highest ranks but experts say the gains shouldn’t overshadow persistent challenges.

The APS proportionally employs more women than the wider labour force yet the gender pay gap remains skewed towards men, with women outnumbering men in the lower pay grades from APS 1 to APS 5. 

And while women have reached parity with men for the first time at the senior levels of  EL 2 and SES 1, the most recent APS census saw ratings of workplace inclusion drop two percentage points overall. 

Speaking ahead of International Women’s Day on Tuesday, two public service experts told The Mandarin there was much work to be done to create equality overall and not just in pockets of the workforce. 

ANU’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership research fellow Dr Elise Stephenson’s research in 2017 to 2019 focused on 80 senior women leaders across the federal government, many of whom told her there was a perception that equality had been achieved. 

“It’s kind of this discrediting or not quite believing that continued inequalities could exist, even when perhaps you’ve got a female secretary,” Stephenson said. 

“We may have gender parity in various parts of government, but often that’s not equal in terms of power. So you’ve also got to look at power and resources.” 

She said some departments, such as Home Affairs and its predecessor the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, employed mostly women yet still faced challenges with achieving equalities. 

“It’s not as if government doesn’t have women, but the inequalities still find a way through, whether that’s pay gaps, representation, leadership, sexual harassment,” Stephenson said. 

But change isn’t only created at work, Stephenson argues, with the wider social networks, families and education systems women are part of potentially slower to adjust in supporting equality than APS workplaces. 

“You can’t just solve it in one agency and have effective change,” she says. 

“We’re actually tackling a much bigger picture than simply addressing bias and inequality within governments, but rather, it kind of has to come from absolutely everywhere.” 

The institutions themselves being older than many private sector businesses could be a disadvantage for governments, while a commitment to transparency and exemplary employment policies makes public workplaces more focused on change. 

“You’ve got to take into consideration the context in which institutions from; and for a lot of government that has [evolved] through colonisation and [been] through the marriage bar which required women to resign on marriage,” Stephenson said. 

Sue Williamson, of Public Service Research Group UNSW Canberra, says while women are yet to reach parity with men in the APS’s top two senior executive levels, recent gains show this could be achieved.

It’s partly a matter of time before those women in the lower levels of SES make into more senior levels,” Williamson said. 

Balancing long hours with competing responsibilities has been part of the challenge, Williamson says, but work including the APS’ Gender Equality Strategy for 2021-26 will help drive change. 

With breaking biases the key unofficial theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, Williamson says biases left unchecked lead to groupthink and stifle innovation. 

“It comes down to building into jobs enough space for people to have time to think about these things. In a perfect job people will be able to think about HR processes and how to overcome unconscious bias and how they can progress equality within their teams,” she said.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of middle managers who are really committed to practising equality in their organisations, but they do lack time and they lack resources.” 

Williamson also believes that while mentoring and sponsoring women in pathways to leadership positions can be beneficial, she advocates for more widespread solutions. 

“It’s better to have an organizational wide approach to gender equality for everyone, at all levels, rather than cherry picking certain women to be fast tracked to have their careers progressed,” she says. 

Comparing the public sector to the private sector, Williamson believes both have advantages and disadvantages in working towards equal and inclusive workplaces. 

“The private sector does have that capacity to be more flexible, whereas the public service is more process-driven and bureaucratic. But both systems can help to embed equality and ensure fairness in processes and structures.”


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