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The public sector ranks dead last on LGBTI workplace equality

Gay men and lesbians were once shunned from employment in government agencies due to the risk of becoming a blackmail target. Now decades later, opportunity and inclusion for LGBTI employees has improved but still lags behind in the public university and private sector, according to the latest report on workplace equality.

Now in its third year, Pride in Diversity’s 2014 Australian Workplace Equality Index was released this month with Australian Federal Police as the only agency or department to rank in the top 20. AFP came equal sixth. Universities, large private businesses and not-for-profit organisations dominated the list.

In every benchmark category the public sector fell behind the private, education and not-for-profit sectors for inclusive practice and engagement. These benchmarks took into account strategic approaches to LGBTI diversity, policies and benefits, grievance procedures and ally engagement. The public sector also came last in diversity training on LGBTI issues, internal analysis of LGBTI inclusion, and engagement with the LGBTI populations in the communities they serve.

PiD’s director Dawn Hough told The Mandarin that many of the public sector agencies have recently started working with her organisation to improve gender and sexual orientation inclusion. The types of inclusion that PiD is looking for are leadership education programs, an LGBTI employee network or advisory council, and positive responses from LGBTI-specific employee surveys.

The index’s employee survey found “a startling 13% of 18-24-year-olds would not report being bullied or harassed at work, with most citing the reason that they do not wish to out themselves to people they are not currently out to”.

Organisation leaders were inclined to overestimate the inclusive experience of their workers. Some 90-95% of senior leaders agree that their organisations “genuinely support” LGBTI inclusion and 72% say it communicates this inclusion, compared to only 79% and 64% of employees respectively. Similarly, 65% of senior leadership believed people within their organisations understood the business case for LGBTI inclusion, whereas only 40% of LGBTI employees believed that.

But when it comes to tolerance towards gay jokes and innuendo, LGBTI employees were more likely let it slide. Only 2% of senior leaders thought such behaviour could be “harmless fun” or that there are “more important things to focus on”. Whereas 9% of non-leaders said saw no harm.

“Despite the growing list of public agencies that participate in LGBTI cultural festivals … there are also few agencies that are seen to be directly consulting with the LGBTI communities they serve.”

Hough says non-LGBTI employees typically felt that their organisations were more supportive of inclusion initiatives than LGBTI employees.

The lived experience of transgender employees is one where less than half believe their organisation is supportive of them as a transgender employee, and over 80% reported bullying and harassment. Only 61% feel confident that their current manager would address the behaviour.

Intersex employees were the smallest category surveyed for the index, and felt least included in diversity and inclusion efforts, and less than a quarter felt comfortable identifying as intersex at work. However, only a very small percentage indicated intersex employees suffer discrimination or harassment at work. The report explained: “This is borne out by the very small percentage who have heard negative commentary or been bullied about intersex issues.”

The different experience of transgender and intersex employees may reflect how intersex is easier to blend in than transitioning gender.

Some public service commissions have begun examining equal opportunity for LGBTI workers for the first time — or at least asking preliminary questions. In NSW, for example, the recently released People Matter Employee Survey results noted that 94% of public servants believed being LGBTI was not a barrier to success. However, it did not ask if the sexuality or intersex/transgender-identity of the responder, so the 6% who believed being LGBTI was a barrier to success could have been dominated by people who lived the experience.

No public service commission state of the sector/service report has yet included LGBTI as a category in their usually generous chapters on diversity efforts. Nor are there yet any internal statistics to assert that the public sector is an employer of choice for LGBTI employees.

Despite the growing list of public agencies that participate in LGBTI cultural festivals, such as Sydney’s Mardi Gras, Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and similar community events in other capitals, there are also few agencies that are seen to be directly consulting with the LGBTI communities they serve. NSW Police is one that does, and has a specific need to work with the LGBTI community, and especially in Sydney’s inner-suburbs, to be seen co-operating and listening to the LGBTI community where police-community relations have been tense in the past.

Every state and territory has anti-discrimination laws in place, as well as a tribunal or commission with the power to mediate complaints and enforce compliance. Federally, the Attorney General’s Department has been circulating new guidance on transgender recognition, and briefing departments on engagement with transgender people, both as employees and as citizens utilising government services.

More at The Mandarin: Commonwealth tweaks diversity hires, transfers to fast track

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.