Peter Varghese’s gender equity legacy


As the week began Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese was cementing in place a Women in Leadership Strategy to cap off a series of management reforms that followed the re-integration of AusAID into the department.

By Tuesday, he was sending out an all-staff email announcing his impending departure from the public service to become the University of Queensland’s next chancellor in seven months’ time.

The announcement, one of several major changes at the top of the Australian Public Service, was well timed — diplomatically, one might observe — to avoid overshadowing yesterday’s launch. Development of the strategy, which began immediately after the merger, was very much a group effort.

“We deliberately decided not to do this by diktat or in one immediate gesture,” Varghese told the throng of employees who filled DFAT’s Barton headquarters yesterday. “We wanted to take a step at a time in order to build a consensus and a commitment to what we’ve ended up with here today.”

“Achieving results … by acting in a way which is completely inconsistent with the core values of the organisation is not something that we should lightly tolerate”

The work Varghese has done on the strategy to increase gender equity has been “a masterclass in leadership” according to senior legal adviser Katrina Cooper (pictured above), who sits on the Women in Leadership Steering Group chaired by the secretary.

The boss made very clear it was “not simply an add-on to other priorities but … an essential element of the department’s work”, Cooper said, flanked by all of DFAT’s Canberra-based deputy secretaries, who are now being considered for the top job. Their presence at the launch, she said, was meant as “a very clear signal of the commitment of the department’s leadership to gender equality”.

Varghese also revealed specific senior executive “champions” of the Women in Leadership Program: deputy secretary Gary Quinlan at band 3 level, Cooper at band 2, and a pair of band 1 staff who are yet to be chosen, one at home and one abroad.

A new DFAT women’s network will also be established and the experience of people taking maternity and parental leave will be reviewed, with a view to having a baby in the family no longer being a major career blockage.

Some of the meeting rooms at the Barton headquarters will also be renamed to recognise more female high achievers of the past.

Varghese said he was committed to meeting the targets but that those at the very top could only do so much. He argued success would hinge more on everybody contributing to the cultural change to a more flexible, accommodating and ultimately, courteous culture, not on how good his speech was:

“I hope we can hold each other accountable, ultimately, to its implementation.”

Asked what he expected from leaders, Varghese said they must understand how to build a strong team by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each member, and make the merged department’s one-year-old core values a reality, meaning “courtesy and respect” should be a feature of every employee’s work life.

“Achieving results … by acting in a way which is completely inconsistent with the core values of the organisation is not something that we should lightly tolerate in the organisation.”

Assessment of managers on their performance against a new 10-point “inclusive leadership” measure which is part of the Women in Leadership Strategy may help in that cause.

Flexibility not just for women

At the outset, Varghese opposed setting targets for the number of women in particular roles, as he did yesterday for the three Senior Executive Service bands.

“I thought there was an implicit contradiction between setting targets and the merit principle,” he said, explaining he changed his mind after joining the Male Champions of Change program in April and being influenced by members from the private sector.

“This is very much the big end of town,” he said, pointing out companies like the big four banks, Telstra and the Australian Stock Exchange aren’t known for “soft decisions” and only make such changes if they are confident they will improve organisational performance.

DFAT has not set gender targets, however, for heads of overseas missions. All Varghese would say publicly was that those are “decisions that are taken more broadly” but he did reveal more about how the goals were finalised. He also mentioned he had consulted former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson — who also tried to knock down barriers to women in that role — when developing the plan to shift the balance.

“The net result of our [staff] consultations was probably a view that we were being too conservative in the targets that we were thinking of and as a result, we did adjust the band 1 targets,” he said during a question-and-answer session. “The band 2 targets are more difficult to do, simply because of the sort of mathematics of it, and the potential recruitment pool.”

Private companies have found that gender equity targets does not undermine the merit principle, said the experienced public servant. Quite the opposite; the organisation is made stronger, as barriers for highly valuable staff are removed. Some companies even set financial penalties for entities that miss targets.

“I don’t think we’re quite ready for that in the department,” said Varghese, who does not support “quotas” and believes they are very different to “targets”.

“I think quotas actually do run up quite profoundly against the merit principle and I probably have continuing reservations about quotas, but I think with targets, properly managed, you get the benefit of being able to set out an ambition that stretches you a little bit, but you can also ensure that in reaching for that you can be faithful to the merit principle.”

‘If not, why not?’

The new strategy is more than just targets, Varghese reminded the audience. It’s also about flexible work arrangements, which apply to both men and women.

“We don’t want to create a patronage culture in this department … because that’s a travesty of everything we’re trying to achieve.”

Nine divisions are trialling a new “if not, why not?” policy which puts the onus on managers to explain why flexible work arrangements like part-time work or working from home are not possible for a particular position. ANZ chief Mike Smith apparently told the DFAT boss that 87% of his staff have “broadly flexible” jobs now, resulting in a “quite impressive” productivity improvement.

Flexible arrangements to accommodate caring responsibilities are just as valuable to fathers as mothers, and the secretary expects men will increasingly take advantage of them, along with another element of the strategy: sponsorship.

The nascent initiative was designed with barriers to working women in mind but men are also expected to avail themselves of it. The idea goes beyond simple mentorship, Varghese explained, and pairs up up-and-comers with senior staff who personally promotes them in the department.

“It is important … not to conflate it with the idea of patronage,” the secretary warned his charges, who weren’t to know he only had a few months left.

“The distinction between the two can sometimes get blurred. We don’t want to create a patronage culture in this department, in the sense where people are getting promoted or posted on the basis of who they know, because that’s a travesty, really, of everything we’re trying to achieve.”

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