Tasmania's top mandarin seeks help to knock down the boys' club

By Stephen Easton

November 9, 2015

A personal commitment on gender equality from Tasmania’s top public servant has proven to be the state service’s hottest topic of 2015.

The head of the Tasmanian state service refuses to join male-dominated conference panels or boards of directors, and wants women to tell him what else he can do to promote gender equality as a public service leader.

That message from Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Greg Johannes via an all-staff memo in August lit up the department’s internal message tracking like none other this year.

Greg Johannes
Greg Johannes

In the message that quickly spread beyond just the DPAC staff it was sent to, Johannes wrote:

“I know I need to walk the talk, so I’ve decided that I won’t be joining any new voluntary boards, or participating on any panels or at any conferences, unless there’s appropriate gender representation in the line-up.

“I’ve let my office know that when someone approaches them asking about my availability, they can tell them that if they don’t have women properly represented then I either won’t attend, or I will go along and present but the first topic I’ll speak about is gender equality.”

The Tasmanian government made its own promise earlier this year too. Government boards and committees will have at least 50% female representation by 2020, state minister for women Jacquie Petrusma announced in July.

It’s the personal pledges of sought-after male panel speakers and board members like Johannes that may have the most wide ranging impact though.

Conferences that fail to include a significant number of women with expertise either overall or in particular sessions are all too common, and often shamed on Twitter with the hashtag #manel.

A mathematician — a man, as it happens — recently looked at the probability that a very male-dominated expert panel at a maths conference happened by chance. It was nearly impossible. Meanwhile, a handy online tool allows one to plug different figures into the following problem: “How many [men/women] would you expect in a random selection of [number] people, assuming they constitute [percentage] of available speakers?”

“… there’s a problem in workplaces like ours where 70% of our employees are women, but 70% of our senior managers are men.”

In the August message, Johannes also reported the appointment of communities, sport and recreation director Kate Kent to his executive team, which has a balance of men and women.

“These are baby steps, but they are steps in the right direction,” he wrote, explaining he redoubled his commitment to promoting gender equality in the Tasmanian government workforce after meeting sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. He endorsed Broderick’s key message that “there’s a problem in workplaces like ours where 70% of our employees are women, but 70% of our senior managers are men.”

Other public services in Australia have similar demographics, with a higher level of female participation in lower ranks and the reverse at the more senior end.

Johannes also took from Broderick that leaders like himself “need to listen and learn before they start leading in new directions on gender equality” and announced he would try to do so.

He invited women who work at DPAC to tell him about “cultural, organisational and any other barriers they see” that make it harder for women to reach senior leadership positions:

“My office door is almost always open and I always answer my emails. That’s a start. Over the next few months though, when you see me walking around the corridors, I want you to grab me and tell me your views.

“Let me know what changes you think we can make to advance gender equality and to allow more of our women to gain senior leadership roles.

“If you don’t want to approach me then grab a member of the Executive, because I’ve also asked them to start talking with their people about what we can do at a whole of department level.”

Johannes told The Mandarin his weekly missive was usually well-read but this particular post was a hot story among his staff, with 350 hits in only four days on the DPAC internal system.

“I’ve since spoken about the issue of gender equality at a number of gatherings of groups of both senior and middle-ranking state servants,” he added.

Tasmania’s top mandarin says it’s tempting for people in his position to fall back on staff surveys that show high levels of satisfaction and assume that barriers to women getting into senior roles are a problem that affects other organisations.

“Responsibility for change rests with us, not with victims, and it starts with embracing gender equality.”

“But I know that’s not the case,” he told his staff, relaying another pivotal event when a staff member let him know about her experience of family violence:

“… she had felt the way we worked hadn’t allowed her to raise the issue and ask for the help she needed. That’s unacceptable.”

Johannes was also influenced by Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, who convinced him that family violence and inequality are linked through the attitudes of men:

“The attitudes of men toward women and the way many of us behave are overwhelmingly the cause of family violence in our community. Responsibility for change rests with us, not with victims, and it starts with embracing gender equality.”

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