Gender equality in APS sights as strategy launches

By David Donaldson

April 28, 2016

Despite women comprising 59% of the Australian Public Service, they are still underrepresented at the top, occupying only 42% of senior executive service grade two and three jobs.

The gender divide is even more noticeable when it comes to flexible work, seen by some as an accommodation for mothers with small children — 82% of all part time jobs in the APS are held by women.

But the Commonwealth is making a concerted effort to shift the attitudes that hold women back in the workplace with the release on Thursday of Balancing the future: The Australian Public Service gender equality strategy.

The report makes the case that gender equality is not merely a moral imperative, but a key pillar of harnessing the talent of those working in government.

The APS must lead the way in improving gender equality in the workforce, says Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, who helped launch the strategy.

“A diverse and inclusive workplace is important not just for reasons of equity and fairness, but also for improving organisational performance,” he said. “For me, it is not only a moral issue. It is a clear business imperative — why would anyone seeking to ensure their organisation’s success choose to ignore the talent and leadership of half their potential staff? And if you expand that idea to the Australian economy, what could we achieve by improving women’s workforce participation across the board?”

Michaelia Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, says improving gender equality and diversity “ensures workplaces have greater depth of experience and perspective”.

“To support Australia’s G20 commitment to boost women’s workforce participation by 25% by 2025, it is essential the APS shines a light on gender equality and leads the way to drive real and lasting change,” Cash said.

The report contends that organisations with the most gender equality outperform those with the least, that increasing the proportion of women in leadership roles is associated with better financial performance, and that gender equality in teams promotes an environment where innovation can flourish.

Yet “implicit bias remains a barrier to women being recruited into certain roles and promoted to senior positions.” Moreover:

“Female employees are less likely to have informal networking opportunities extended to them than their male co-workers — missing out on the connections and confidence these offer.”

Graph: all APS employees: employment grade by gender, 31 December 2015.
All APS employees: employment grade by gender (as at December 31, 2015)

A ‘supportive and enabling culture’

Balancing the future highlights driving a supportive and enabling culture, gender equality in leadership, innovation to embed gender equality in employment practices, increased take-up of flexible working arrangements by men and increased measurement and evaluation as priority areas.

To promote a supportive culture, the strategy states agencies will ensure gender equality is a business objective and that this is communicated to stakeholders. Senior managers should shape all communications to show support, clearly and publicly, for an inclusive workplace. Leaders should support both men and women in their choices about work flexibility.

Leaders with their own caring responsibilities should be open about these with employees, as recommended by former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. “If men could do one thing to advance gender equality, it would be to make visible their caring responsibilities,” Broderick argued.

To achieve greater equality at leadership levels, agencies must set “tailored but ambitious” gender equality stretch targets across all leadership levels and business areas. Agency heads will be accountable through their performance agreements for meeting these targets towards an overarching goal of achieving 50-50 gender balance. A target of women holding 50% of all government board positions will commence on July 1, 2016.

Agencies “must develop or seek access to programs that support women’s progression into senior leadership positions”, the report states:

“Priority should be given to specialist functional areas affected by gender imbalance — such as information technology, science and finance.”

Public service agencies “will review their recruitment, retention, and performance management practices to drive gender equality. This includes building organisational capability to address unconscious bias, committing to appropriate gender balance on selection panels, all panels asking “50/50 — if not, why not?” for gender balance in shortlisting processes, and ensuring learning and development opportunities are appropriate and equitable.”

The Australian Public Service Commission plans to review and develop training on the differential impact of gender in mainstream policy development, and will develop training for APS managers on mitigating unconscious bias.

And to combat the perception that flexible working arrangements are for women with young kids, agencies will adopt a “flexible by default” approach, the report says:

“This includes managers challenging assumptions about how work should be done and how jobs are designed. Agencies are to put in place steps to ensure flexible work arrangements are not detrimental to employees’ career progression.”

In addition, leaders must put mechanisms in place to improve the take-up of flexible work arrangements by men.

To ensure the strategy is implemented, agencies will review performance assessment processes and performance indicators for gender equality, and the Secretaries Board will form a a gender equality sub-committee.

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