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Parkinson takes on ‘deeply offensive’ gender accusations

OPINION: The head of the Australian Public Service is one of the most unlikely bosses to be accused of gender bias, given his personal track record as a champion of change, but that’s the unusual and illogical claim levelled this week.

The head of the Australian Public Service is one of the most unlikely bosses to be accused of gender bias, given his personal track record as a champion of change, but that’s the unusual and illogical claim levelled this week.

Addressing “deeply offensive” criticism of his department’s multiple pay scales and personal attacks on his executives, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has come out swinging. The response Martin Parkinson was moved to publish on Tuesday afternoon is as hard to fault as the op-ed it responds to is hard to understand.

Columnist Jenna Price suggests the difference in pay ranges between two comparable mid-level executive positions in different offices within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is a blatant example of the gender pay gap and the gendered workforce from which it emerges.

Her evidence is that one job in the department’s longstanding social policy division pays more than another in the Office for Women, which moved into the department after the Coalition was elected in 2013. She implies the background of the woman charged with running the Office for Women shows its work isn’t understood or taken seriously enough.

“Criticism of someone for their experience rather than their transferable skills and potential is one of the reasons that women do not progress at the same rates as men.”

Price later clarified her position in response to reader comments by arguing “jobs such as those in the Office for Women are usually occupied by women” and argued the lower pay in FaHCSIA compared to PM&C is an example of the pay gap resulting from a gendered workforce as women “utterly dominated” the former department.

The Australian Public Service Commission unfortunately doesn’t collect statistics for the Office for Women separately to PM&C, where the breakdown was 806 men and 1544 women as of December last year.

Risking an accusation of mansplaining, Parkinson points out “there are many enterprise agreements across the APS, with different conditions and rates of pay” and more than one apply in PM&C currently because enterprise bargaining has not been finalised since the 2013 election:

“The difference in pay in my department highlighted in the article dates back to 2013 when the Office for Women was moved from the former Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) to PM&C. Until enterprise agreement negotiations are complete, all jobs in the Office for Women continue to be covered by the FaHCSIA enterprise agreement, while positions in PM&C’s Social Policy Division are covered by the PM&C enterprise agreement.”

Price also told a reader Parkinson “could show commitment to pay equity by sorting the EBA now” and argued in the op-ed that he could and should “simply” fix the pay disparity between the divisions. Could he? Really? He’s a powerful man but as Price’s colleagues have voluminously reported for several years, there’s a few things standing in his way like Cabinet and the government’s rather prescriptive enterprise bargaining policy.

Parkinson writes he found the article “deeply offensive” and restated that he is “committed to equal pay for equal work” and is “working to find a solution” to the tricky enterprise bargaining stand-off with his employees, where neither their union nor the government is giving much ground:

“In the meantime, within the parameters of their enterprise agreement, employees have the ability to negotiate a salary based on their skills and experience. To suggest my department is unfairly treating current and potential female employees is just plain wrong.”

The offending article also takes aim at the head of the Office for Women, first assistant secretary Amanda McIntyre, questioning her limited experience in women’s policy and quoting anonymous insiders who ascribe an “amateur interest in gender issues” to the former chief financial officer.

Parkinson defends his appointment and hits back that Price is in fact demonstrating the exact sort of behaviour that holds women back:

“Criticism of someone for their experience rather than their transferable skills and potential is one of the reasons that women do not progress at the same rates as men. I am proud to have appointed an executive with significant runs on the board and potential to this key leadership role.”

The PM&C boss has previously described gender equality in the workforce as “a moral issue [and] a clear business imperative” and as an economist, sees the Office for Women’s work promoting gender equality as a driver of national economic growth:

“In recognition of this, I have elevated the Office to Women to a standalone Division and ensured it has ongoing strategic direction and strong leadership by appointing one of my best operators to lead it.”

Price suspects “perception” was the main reason the office became a division after being moved into PM&C. She implies the appointment of McIntyre, when considered together with other political and bureaucratic appointments, reveals the Coalition’s commitment to women’s policy is weaker than it might appear.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.