Parkinson: diversity won’t just roll in, ‘go out and find good candidates’


Martin Parkinson

Don’t know how to square off an HR diversity target with the idea of merit-based selection? You’re not alone.

However, two top figures for the public service think the answer lies in how far selection panels are willing to go.

Martin Parkinson (pictured), the head of the Australia Public Service and member of Male Champions of Change, offered some guidance at Wednesday’s IPAA ACT breakfast on how selection panels can overcome unconscious bias. Be proactive, he says, because understandings of merit can skew not just who gets selected, but who puts in an application:

“It’s subjective. We all have a sense of what merit is, but I suspect too often we see merit as being most reflected in people who look like us.

“If this is the case, it’s not surprising that the progress of women or people from diverse cultural backgrounds into leadership positions has been slow.”

As secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Parkinson is asking his department what merit is and why parity isn’t coming quicker.

“I suspect one culprit is that, when hiring staff, we interpret merit as belonging to the person we could immediately put into a job as a safe pair of hands. We don’t tend to think of merit as the potential a candidate has, or their capacity to learn.

“We also probably don’t focus on building a deeper pool of candidates. A recruitment panel’s success should be judged on getting about 50-50 gender balance in applications. It’s not a panel’s job to sit back and wait for the applications to roll in, it’s their job to go out and find good candidates.”

“Yes, there is an old boys network, but … you cannot tell me you do not have the women.”

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who was the keynote speaker at the breakfast ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day and also holds responsibilities as Minister for Women and Minister for the Public Service, gave a fiery endorsement of the onus on selection panels to proactively find female candidates.

One audience member, a senior public servant, asked Cash how she could help contribute to parity targets when merit-based selection is sacrosanct in public service recruitment. Cash used the example of how she deals with the same problem in government board appointments:

“A target is just a target, something you should try to reach, but you should never appointment other than on merit. The hard part is  going out and finding the women … they are there!

“If I’m giving a list of male names — and I see the same male names put forward again and again — I ask for women’s names. It’s something I can do for government boards. ‘Didn’t you put him forward for three previous roles?’ Yes, there is an old boys network, but look at the women here today. You cannot tell me you do not have the women to be on boards.”

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