The glass ceiling: time for gender quotas for mandarins?

By Harley Dennett

June 3, 2016

It must tell us something, surely, if women stand a better chance of reaching the top job in the chaotic arena of politics than in the talent-managed field of public administration. Even after abolishing the unconscionable ban on married women working in the public service, female politicians reached higher, usually decades earlier, than their bureaucrat counterparts.

” … the shortlist which the prime minister picked the successful applicant from was entirely male.”

The number of women who have headed a public service in Australia is pitifully few: ACT’s Kathy Leigh, Victoria’s Helen Silver — a lateral recruit from the private sector — some 20 years after ACT’s Rosemary Follett became the first female head of government. Indeed every state and territory, bar South Australia, has had a female leader of government.

At portfolio-level, the first federal female cabinet minister was Margaret Guilfoyle in 1975 but it took another 10 years for the APS to appoint its first female secretary, Helen Williams, into the then Department of Education and Youth Affairs. Even today, the portion of female federal departmental secretaries remains under 30%. Boundary where men start to outnumber women in the APS starts as low as EL1 level.

The states and territories, and especially the ACT, are a bit closer to reflecting the population in the highest public service ranks. Only the ACT has ever achieved gender parity for directorate heads.

In local government, a mere 5% of chief executive officer positions are occupied by women according to the Australian Local Government Association, dwarfed by the similarly abysmal 27% of elected positions women hold on councils. ALGA says these percentages have barely lifted since the early 1990s.

Canada leads with strong affirmative action

Australia’s government jurisdictions are hardly alone in this. Across the Commonwealth and the G20 there is an undeniable gender imbalance in the top ranks of government administration. The Commonwealth Secretariat published research last year that found worrying statistics of female representation in senior public sectors, with just Canada and the Caribbean at near-parity levels.

Then Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma observed that: “Leadership in the 21st century is not a reserved occupation for men. Talented and ambitious women are still being limited by outdated attitudes and unjust presuppositions that combine to create a glass ceiling.”

If Sharma’s comment sounds heavy handed to Australian ears, he was in effect comparing Australia to Canada, and found us wanting.

Canada has had public sector employment equity programs since 1983. These programs and public sector targets were backed by legislative force in 1995 and includes “positive measures” to reflect the diversity of society — just treating women equally wasn’t enough to correct historical biases. The requirements and covered areas were reduced in the later years of the Harper government, but are being expanded again under the Trudeau government.

Earlier this year, EY published a ranking of G20 nations by percentage of women in senior public sector roles. It measures like-for-like, scooping up the top 10% of public sector roles rather than exactly matching Australia’s SES model. In no G20 country do women hold 50% of senior public sector roles.

  1. Canada — 46.1%
  2. Australia — 40.1%
  3. South Africa — 39.8%
  4. United Kingdom — 38.7%
  5. Brazil — 35.4%
  6. United States — 34%

UK Labour backs shortlist quotas

Whitehall’s highest tier has gone backwards in gender diversity in the latest reshuffle: from five to two female permanent secretaries, it’s furthest point from parity yet since it was briefly achieved in 2011 when there were 8 men and 8 women.

But its ambition isn’t lost. Last year the UK Cabinet Office released a Talent Action Plan, which included not just gender but also black and minority ethnic representation and LGBTI representation — a very remote concept for Australian public service commissions.

An earlier party to name-blind trials, the UK will introduce name-blind recruiting across the civil service over the next four years.

Labour’s Louise Haigh says this isn’t enough, this week telling Civil Service World that more concrete measures were needed to address the “glacial” pace of progress at the very top of Whitehall. Targets aren’t enough, she says, arguing quotas on interview shortlists could achieve results faster.

“You are going to have to positively discriminate for women, like we do with all-women shortlists in the Labour party,” Haigh said.

“If we’re to achieve change at anything like the speed we need it to then I think it is the only solution. When I was in the City, I did a lot of work on women in boards. And there was a lot of pushback against quotas in that. But it really was the only way to focus minds and focus recruitment.

“In the latest perm sec appointment [process] I understand that the shortlist which the prime minister picked the successful applicant from was entirely male. So clearly there isn’t enough focus on bringing women forward for those senior roles, if we can’t even find one to enter the shortlists. Even if it’s just quotas on shortlists — if not on the ultimately successful appointment — we need more practical and disctinctive measures like that.”

“I don’t think quotas address entrenched biases in any way.”

There was less enthusiasm inside the civil service. CSW quotes one of the remaining two remaining female permanent secretaries, Sue Owen, at an Institute for Government forum:

“I don’t think quotas for people at the top would do anything about representation lower down,” Owen said. “I don’t think quotas address entrenched biases in any way. Trying to operate quotas for gender, disability, LGBT — you can get yourself into a terrible twist about that. I don’t think quotas change leadership behaviours.”

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Peter Bobroff
Peter Bobroff
6 years ago

Some tax payers may be under the misapprehension that the public service exists to support the governing of the country at minimum expense. They may wrongly assume that hiring the most productive person available for each job might help this.

There is said to be one lawyer per 300 people in the USA. Australia may be similar. So an affirmative action program is needed to ensure that there are 299 non-lawyers for every 300 Mandarins.

6 years ago

I think that it’s worth disposing that the Mandarin staff gender balance is somewhat under-represented by women. Are there any women in non-secretarial roles?

6 years ago
Reply to  Michael

Actually, the company has a female majority. Additionally, a majority of its leadership roles been held by women since Private Media began publishing The Mandarin, including three of the company’s five editors, the current general manager (Tamsin Creed) and two of its three most recent CEOs (Marina Go and Amanda Gome). In an industry that has traditionally been male dominated, I think we’re ahead of the pack. — Harley

Edit: there is one area that we feel The Mandarin needs more female representation: contributors. If you have an idea for an article, feel free to contact me at

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