DFAT’s women in leadership target ‘ultimately about productivity’


The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade launched a strategy to break down the barriers to women reaching the highest levels of the diplomatic workforce.

DFAT has set itself targets to boost female participation in Senior Executive Service Band 1 roles from its current level of 36% to 43% by 2020, and from 25% up to 40% for SES Band 2.

The DFAT Women in Leadership strategy was informed primarily by a review conducted by consultant Deborah May, who specialises in organisational diversity. It was aided by analysis of data on gender trends within DFAT as well as staff feedback and suggestions.

Secretary Peter Varghese, who joined the Male Champions of Change project this year, commissioned May to explain why 57% of his employees were women but only made up 34% of SES ranks, and 27% of heads of overseas missions and posts. According to the document:

“Women are applying for senior leadership roles at proportionally lower rates than men, despite performance data showing that women are performing as well as or better than men at all levels across the department. This suggests that the department’s culture constrains women’s choices and it is not applying the merit principle fully or making the most of its talent.”

The strategy explicitly states that while it aims to improve gender equality outcomes and root out the last vestiges of sex discrimination, “it is ultimately about productivity”.

“This process goes to the heart of our work on leadership and values,” Varghese writes in the document. “For DFAT to perform at its best, we must maximise the talents and skills of all our staff. This strategy is about strengthening our capability by enabling all staff to reach their full potential.”

Along with the targets, DFAT states it is making flexible work “the default for all positions” on a trial basis. All managers will receive training about “unconscious bias” and have had “inclusive leadership” added to their performance measures, which relates to how well they encourage diverse perspectives.

The strategy also includes a commitment to review internal policies to find those that make it harder for staff with caring responsibilities to move onwards and upwards.

It devotes considerable space to arguing that a strong business case has already been made for organisational diversity, supported by empirical research, and states that “committed and accountable leadership” is required to carry it forward:

“Executive level staff play a particular role as ‘keepers of the culture’ and future leaders. In accordance with the Leadership Charter, all managers are expected to lead by example and to be aware of their power as role models in embedding change.”

A 10-point performance measure says managers will be assessed based on how well they:

  1. Lead by example to build a more inclusive culture and make gender diversity a business priority. Understand their impact as managers and consider: what I say; how I act; what I prioritise; what I measure. Seek feedback.
  2. Take responsibility and demonstrate trust. Are creative, ambitious and can-do in identifying strategies to promote diversity, including relating to flexible and part- time work for men and women.
  3. Recognise and reward behaviour that is inclusive and challenge behaviour that is not. Take issues up the line where needed.
  4. Find opportunities to talk about gender diversity with teams.
  5. Share career-enhancing opportunities equally among staff and are accountable for doing so.
  6. Discuss career aspirations and planning with staff. Ensure part-time and flexible workers and staff returning from maternity/parental leave are not penalised or assumptions made about their interest in development opportunities or availability for short-term missions.
  7. Identify high-potential female staff and support their career progression, with particular strategies for those with flexible or part-time work arrangements, or returning from maternity/parental leave.
  8. Manage meetings to accommodate different styles and ensure diverse voices are heard. For example, rotate chair responsibilities where appropriate, seek out women’s voices, introduce a “no interruptions” rule.
  9. Aim for gender balance on departmental committees and among speakers for panels and conferences.
  10. Showcase female and male role models who work part time or flexibly. Foster a culture which recognises and celebrates the contribution of women.

The Women in Leadership Strategy lists 25 separate actions under four headings: leadership and culture; accountability and inclusion; embedding substantive equality; and mainstreaming flexible work and dismantling barriers for carers.

Varghese chairs the Women in Leadership Steering Group, which includes Elizabeth Broderick, who was Sex Discrimination Commissioner for eight years until her departure this September, as well as Simon Rothery, the CEO of Goldman Sachs in Australia and New Zealand, as external members.

The steering group includes five staff representatives as well as members from DFAT’s Families Network and its Women in Leadership Secretariat, which will work with line areas to identify any issues and risks arising from the 25 action items, monitor progress, measure outcomes and make suggestions. The secretariat will report biannually to the steering group.

The strategy dovetails with the department’s Strategic Workforce Planning Framework 2015-17, sits alongside its Leadership Charter and aims to enliven its Values Statement. There is an expectation that “genuine gender equality and effecting cultural change will be an iterative process” so staff are asked to keep thinking of complementary new ideas.

Overseas posts are encouraged to consider how best to apply the strategy in their local environments and develop “post-specific strategies to address gender equality and career progression” for locally engaged staff.

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