Gender equality in leadership: failed targets to real action

By Jason Whittaker

March 15, 2016

In 2003, South Australia set an ambitious target to put women in at least half of all executive-level roles in the public service within a decade. Less than a third of all government executives were women at the time.

It failed, despite the best of intentions.

“We’ve made considerable progress,” said Erma Ranieri, the state’s energetic commissioner for public sector employment. “But the fact is there are still plenty of intelligent, talented women working in the public sector who haven’t reached their full potential.”

“Systems need to change to recognise the full breadth of the skills base …”

There has, indeed, been progress: women now make up 45% of executives (557 out of 1249). Individual departments have made more progress than others. But leaders now recognise the wholesale, cross-agency change needed to achieve equality at the top was easier said than done.

“This is not a reflection on those employees,” said Ranieri, “rather it highlights the fact that systems need to change to recognise the full breadth of the skills base that is on offer in the public sector and that there are no structural or cultural barriers that impede their career progression.”

Now the state is getting serious.

2016-03-15_10-24-12Last week the government launched a new action plan — Gender Equality in Leadership — including fresh initiatives with three key levers: “leadership accountability”, “empowered workplaces” and the “talent pipeline”. It compliments a report from the Office for Women — Achieving Women’s Equality — and includes consultation with public sector agencies.

In a forward from the senior management council, the report states collaboration across government and a focus on real action will “help us turn our aspirations into reality”:

“Across the public sector we have some very dedicated groups and individuals championing gender equality in leadership and working to create the conditions and cultures that enable both women and men to thrive. We understand that there is a shared frustration that women’s representation in leadership hasn’t increased as much as it could have, despite ongoing targets and that some of the barriers that existed 10 years ago still exist today. However, there is still a genuine momentum for change.

“Now is a time for us to recalibrate, learn from what has been working and disrupt the status quo. No one agency has it all right. But together we can share our insights, pool our resources and dismantle barriers.”

In launching the report, Status for Women Minister Zoe Bettison highlighted the “tremendous benefits” in greater female representation across government. “Research clearly shows that promoting gender equality in leadership and decision-making roles brings greater innovation, improves productivity and delivers better financial performance,” she said.

“These measures will help promote equality in the public sector and offer new opportunities for women to strengthen their skills and take on those leadership roles within government agencies.”

Implementation of the new measures will be led by Ranieri, supported by a steering committee made up of representatives from across government. Progress will be reported in the annual State of the Sector report.

Leadership accountability

More than half of some 200 public service participants at a diversity forum last year said gender equality is not a priority in their organisation, or were unsure if it was a priority. The lack of commitment from leadership to diversity targets was seen as a top five organisational barrier (along with unconscious bias, culture, recruitment and promotion processes and workplace flexibility).

Government has now agreed to incorporate principles, targets and measures that reflect gender equity and equality into all business plans and practices. Agency bosses will have responsibility to ensure they are met. “Public sector employees at all levels,” the report states, “understand that achieving gender equality in leadership is a priority.”

Among other leadership initiatives:

  • A gender pay gap analysis of public sector data will identify the level of disparity in various roles, with a strategy developed to address the findings;
  • Chief executives will prepare a list of suitable replacements for their role to support succession planning, with at least 50% women to be nominated (including external candidates);
  • An examination of how the budgetary environment and central controls influence executive numbers; and
  • The development of a reverse mentoring program where female execs guide men in senior management to “reduce barriers and enhance leaders’ understanding of women’s experiences in the public sector”.

Empowered workplaces

Initiatives to improve equality have generally been led by women, the report acknowledges — despite research that shows they’re more likely to succeed when men are included. The report wants more men engaged in the actions around achieving gender equality.

Meanwhile, workplaces are still not flexible enough, to aid child care and also the impact of domestic violence. Workplace harassment, too, remains a concern. Efforts to create a more safe, flexible and bias-free workplace will include:

  • A summit to empower both male and female current and aspiring leaders to drive inclusive leadership;
  • The development of an education program focussing on challenging unconscious bias, with practical tips and reference to multiple characteristics (race, disability, sexuality, etc);
  • An evaluation of the uptake of flexible working arrangements;
  • Further research around harassment and the different experiences between genders;
  • Making departments and agencies become accredited White Ribbon Workplaces; and
  • A new policy to support victims of domestic/family violence, with up to 15 days of special leave with pay.

Talent pipeline

“The problem is not the lack of female talent,” the report notes, “rather the leaky pipeline.”

While women comprise almost 70% of the total public sector workplace, more men progress at every level. Better talent definition and identification is required, with gender-equitable and bias-free access to development and leadership capability models for employees at all levels.

The report wants gender targets set and tracked at all ranks. Half of all selection panels must be women (three-person panels must have at least one woman). Candidate pools should be gender equitable “where possible”. Other initiatives will include:

  • A “suite of programs” to strengthen the leadership and management skills of aspiring and current female leaders at all levels;
  • Public celebration of female role models and achievements;
  • A pilot sponsorship program where women are proactively supported through career progression;
  • Partnering with industry programs to broaden opportunities for women; and
  • More support and encouragement for women on boards and committees.
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