Twenty-two years ago I left a high-paid, high-prestige and (at that time) financially secure job because inconveniently I became a single parent. I was simultaneously assumed to be less capable, reliable and committed than I had been when childless and, given the paucity of women in senior roles, I figured that something was going on that was not just about me.
Armed with curiosity, optimism and a Fulbright Scholarship, I went to Boston to attend the only business school designed for women so I could better understand why organisations worked better for men than they did for me.
I came back in 1998 with enthusiasm, energy and some ideas about how to change minds, systems and cultures to make room for a few more women — especially at the top.
A decade behind the US
It was a harder gig than I’d expected. Australia was at least a decade behind the United States; gender equity had slipped behind the former Labor government’s shadow and diversity was considered a collection of degrees from well qualified, white folk.
Just 8% of ASX 200 executives were women, two CEOs were women, there was one woman public sector secretary in Canberra and no one really appeared to care too much.“… the APS cultural norms continue to favour those ‘like us’ …”
Well … 18 years on, the numbers of executive women in the ASX have barely budged, but we do have six women secretaries. Enthusiasm is higher but APS workplace culture has changed little.
From the many cultural audits we’ve undertaken across the APS (think of them as an organisational scan — which, much like an MRI, makes visible the invisible and identifies underlying causes of pain) it’s clear that unconscious bias is the most significant barrier to gender equity and, more broadly, diversity and inclusion.
Like the Canberra arboretum where, despite the best intentions and ambition for a diverse plantation, the soil and conditions make it difficult for any non-native tree to thrive, the APS cultural norms continue to favour those “like us”, who are willing and able to conform to “how we do things around here”.
Those norms do not accommodate the diverse and divergent needs of a contemporary workforce — and we’re all the poorer as a result.
Family and caring responsibilities
The most consistent and pernicious example of this bias is towards women — and, increasingly, men — with family and caring responsibilities, even in agencies where more than 50% of the SES are women.
Some 20% of the APS work part time (70% are women), but less than 3% of SES officers work part time! It’s an extraordinary drop that speaks to the implicit (and often explicit) assessments of merit, potential and suitability. These assessments rely on unreasonable and inaccurate expectations of 24/7 availability, informed by outdated thinking, stereotypes and assumptions about commitment and reliability.
Additionally, APS organisational structures and systems do not support those with family responsibilities. There is limited creativity in job design and even though many people tell me that women working part time are often more productive than their full-time colleagues, there is little done to harness this productive effort, or make it easy to sustain.
All of this is amplified by limited role modelling at the most senior levels and a lack of managerial capability.
Hardly surprising, then that many women (and, indeed, men) feel they need to choose between a family and their careers: “The type of job and the expectations of an SES role means I’m not interested …”
On the up side, however, there are good examples of people making it work. We hear of different levels of creativity in job design, examples of job sharing, some excellent managerial practices and some role models — it’s just that it’s ad hoc and relies on individuals to make it work.
APS-wide reform is required and needs to be led from the very top. The good news is that the secretaries recognise it and seem geared to take it on.
Deborah May will speak at the Public Sector Women in Leadership conference this June