Women in the APS: better than the ASX, still work to do

By David Donaldson

Monday July 14, 2014

Thanks to early legislation and strong commitment from those in leadership, the Australian public service continues to outperform the private sector on equality for women. But there is still room to improve.

While women only comprise 9.2% of senior executives in ASX500 companies, they make up 41% of SES employees in the APS.

Claire Braund of Women on Boards argues the public sector’s success comes down to the fact that it has offered better conditions and opportunities to women for a long time. Braund says the public sector has “had a paid parental leave scheme for many years. They have better employment conditions. Lots of women go to the public service because they can guarantee when they come back from parental leave that their job will be there.”

Although private sector companies are supposed to keep a position available for when a woman comes back from maternity leave, says Braund, she has seen “quite large numbers of people who are being laid off while they are on paid parental leave”.

The public sector enjoys the legacy of human resources practices 30 years ago. Despite the private sector making “huge gains” over the past two decades, the APS’ long-standing “fairer system for promotion” has meant that the women who started their careers 30 years ago have been given the opportunity to rise to senior levels, says Braund.

Defence, the federal department with the second-lowest number of women in senior management, highlighted this as a problem for achieving greater equality in the short-term, arguing in a report that “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”.

According to Australia and New Zealand School of Government fellow Professor Meredith Edwards, the introduction of affirmative action legislation in the 1980s and commitment by the Hawke and Keating governments gave women “a great start”. Keating did not initially place much importance on gender equality in the workforce, but became an advocate for the cause on the prompting of figures such as Anne Summers, at that time head of the Office of the Status of Women.

“Strong leadership” from department heads such as Peter Shergold and Martin Parkinson helped to signal that equal representation was seen as a sincerely held goal. One important strategy, says Edwards, is to have male leaders openly championing change. Parkinson has brought in training to address issues such as unconscious bias and to raise awareness of the confidence gap between many male and female employees. Recently, Army chief David Morrison has shown commitment to increasing women’s representation at Defence.

“We now need to value more the benefits of diversity for productivity gains and to attack unconscious bias with strong and consistent leadership,” Edwards told The Mandarin. “Bad luck we are losing male champions Martin Parkinson and David Morrison.”

Despite leadership on the issue in the bureaucracy, studies have shown that barriers to equality still exist. While the Commonwealth, ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Northern Territory bureaucracies have women in at least 40% of senior executive positions, Tasmania and Western Australia are still below 30%.

And those statistics hide large variations between departments: Treasury and Defence have only 24% and 28% female representation at SES level. By contrast, 54% of Health executives are women.


A study released last year, Not Yet 50/50, highlighted a number of barriers: 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.

Research by Bain and Company has found while equal numbers of women and men aspire to reaching senior management positions, women are less likely to put themselves forward for promotion, or to self-promote in general. This comes down to the question of self-confidence: several studies have found that men are more likely to overestimate their ability, while women will often underestimate their skills.

One strategy for creating a more equal workplace culture consistently recommended to the authors of Not Yet 50/50 was putting more women into leadership positions. Strong communication from departmental secretaries also helps in “reinforcing the value of diversity in management and leadership styles”.

Setting targets helps, too. Following a 2011 report that demonstrated the paucity of female representation in the leadership of Defence and Treasury, both have implemented targets and programs; the proportion of women at senior executive level at Defence increased from 24% in 2011 to 28% in 2013.

The target of at least 40% representation for women on government boards, achieved last year, came in for praise from both Braund and Edwards. Braund, however, is worried about backsliding: “The Abbott government has shown little interest in that matter, and that is of concern for us.”

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