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Public sector weak, improving on female representation

Thirty years after the appointment of the first female secretary of a Commonwealth department — on the eve of International Women’s Day — there are still twice as many men in Australian public sector leadership roles as women in some states.

While women outnumber men as a fraction of total public sector employees, the bulk of female staff tend to be found in lower and middle income jobs such as teaching and nursing.

The first female secretary to be appointed in the APS was Helen Williams AO, who in 1985 became the head of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. The first woman in a statutory post was Marie Coleman, appointed to the Social Welfare Commission in 1972.

Four decades later, there’s still progress to be made. While accessible statistics between states are not always directly comparable, it’s clear there remains a gap between the number of men and women in senior public service positions across Australia.

  • Commonwealth: 58% of the total APS workforce are women; 41% of SES positions.
  • New South Wales: 62.4% of the public sector workforce are women, but only 34.5% of those earning in the top two salary levels are women.
  • Victoria: 67% of the public sector workforce are women. Women comprised 37% of public service executives in 2014, an increase from just under 30% in 2006. Around one-third of public entity executives and CEOs are women.
  • Queensland: 68% of the public sector workforce are women, but only 31% of executives.
  • Western Australia: 71% of the public sector workforce are women; 30.1% of executives.
  • South Australia: 63% of the public sector workforce are women; 46% of executives.

Former public service commissioner Stephen Sedgwick suggested the broad target should perhaps be “the so-called 40, 40, 20 rule … that a a minimum of 40% should be women, 40% men, and the other 20 is up for grabs”. If so, only the APS and South Australia have achieved a pass mark.

Regardless, the public sector does far better than private industry — women only comprise 9.2% of senior executives in ASX500 companies.

The local government sector does poorly, too. Just 25% of local government directors, CEOs and managing directors are women. One-third of local government managers are female.

The shrinking number of women closer to the top is reflected in attitudinal surveys, too. The 2014 NSW People Matter survey found that while more than 90% of women on incomes below $65,000 agreed that “gender is not a barrier to success in my organisation”, only around 84% of women earning $140,000 or more agreed (94% of men agreed).

A 2013 report, Not Yet 50/50, highlighted a number of barriers for women: male-dominated departments tend to have homogenous ideas about what makes for good leadership; the “boys’ club” problem — some workplace cultures favour masculine social or leadership behaviours, making it difficult for women (and some men) to fit in; perceptions, held primarily by men, about women’s prioritisation of family responsibilities over work; sexist perceptions about women’s ability to lead; and the effect that all these factors have on female employees’ self-confidence, making it more difficult for women to feel comfortable and be productive.

Defence, Treasury playing catch-up

Defence and Treasury have traditionally been the laggards in ensuring female representation among senior leadership positions in Canberra. Both are making serious efforts at rectifying the gender gap, however.

As of June 2014, a third of SES-level employees at Treasury were women, a significant increase from its June 2013 figure of 24%. The department launched its Progressing Women Initiative in 2011 and has instituted a target of 35% female representation in its SES by 2016, with a longer-term target of 40%.

By contrast, 54% of executives in the Department of Health are women.

Last year Treasury launched its “if not, why not?” flexible work policy. Allowing flexible work patterns where possible assists all employees to be able to better manage their family and community commitments, and particularly benefits women.

Treasury has also been rolling out “unrecognised bias” training, and began a cultural audit in August 2014 “to assess progress, including on removal of barriers to career progression of women in the department”.

Among Defence APS personnel, 29% of senior executives are now women, up from 24% when the McGregor Review of Employment Pathways for Women in the Department of Defence report was released in 2011, which argued that “women’s representation in Defence is not reflective of the broader community and there are barriers which limit their inclusion”.

Women comprised 15% of personnel in the ADF at June 2014, an increase from 14.3% a year previously. The overall Defence APS female participation rate remained steady at 40.6%.

But change takes time. Defence’s 2012-13 annual report highlighted the “pipeline” problem as a short-term barrier to increasing the number of women in senior roles, arguing:

“A significant factor contributing to the low numbers of women in the Defence senior leadership has been a shortage of women in the executive level (EL) ranks.”

There has also been an effort to change the culture within Defence. The department released a video this week as part of the HeForShe campaign, encouraging men “to identify and take steps to support women and gender equality, embrace flexibility, be a mentor, call out the myths, be a champion”.

Defence told The Mandarin that it was implementing a range intiatives aimed at increasing female representation:

“Defence has established an Executive Level (EL) Talent Management Program, which is designed to provide a 50:50 gender ratio so that Defence is developing men and women in equal number for potential future leadership roles.

“Mentoring programs have been in place for some years but formal mentoring programs for female EL1 employees have been introduced to ensure Defence has a ready group of women ready to progress into more senior positions.

“Defence has been developing its marketing and attraction strategies for Defence Graduate Programs, to attract more women. Defence has introduced goals for female recruitment to Defence Graduate Programs, which has had a positive effect, so that the feeder pool of our future leaders is more representative of women.

“Defence has introduced a Leadership Inclusion Program for Defence’s Senior Executive Service (SES) Bands 2 and 3 to assist SES to build on existing culture reform initiatives and steer an inclusive approach to breaking down gender bias.   Specific training has also been implemented to address confidence gaps, in EL staff, highlighted as the number one barrier to progressing senior APS women in Defence.

“Gender balance is also being prioritised on committees and decision making bodies, to ensure that Defence decision making and planning benefits from female experience and perspective.  Gender balance on selection panels has also been in place for some time.

“Access to flexible work arrangements has been improved for the ADF and APS workforces, including greater accessibility of working remotely or from home.”

Defence has had additional problems relating to sexual misconduct. It is implementing broader changes aimed at cultural shift; indicators on progress appear positive.

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A report for change in NSW

To get a better understanding of the gender gap at the highest levels of the NSW public sector, in 2014 the Public Service Commission engaged Sydney University to produce the Advancing Women: Increasing the participation of women in senior roles in the NSW public sector report, published in September.

The PSC told The Mandarin it is working with departments and agencies on a response to the recommendations and a planned approached to implementation relating to the following six key areas:

  • Endorsement by senior leaders;
  • Gender equity targets and KPIs;
  • Flexible work options;
  • Raising awareness of gender equity, particularly unconscious bias;
  • Collaboration and information sharing;
  • Analysing data.

The response document, endorsed by secretaries and heads of agencies, will be published on the PSC website at the end of May. Case studies, data and other practical resources will also be made available to assist implementation across the sector.

More at The Mandarin: NSW gender equity report: women outperform men at top

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.