‘Have a crack’ at promotion, Eccles tells young women

By David Donaldson

Friday February 24, 2017

Woman run to new opportunities. Leadership metaphor

When looking at a job description where they only meet some of the key selection criteria, women are more likely than men to decide there is no point applying. This can mean missing out on opportunities.

Given that there can be a “reticence” for younger women especially to “put themselves into an overt competitive process”, public sector leaders have a responsibility to tell young women that “you have every right to have a crack in the same way that your male counterparts are prepared to have a crack”, says Chris Eccles, secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

The drive to boost female representation in key roles across the Victorian Public Service is having an impact at DPC. The department is just shy of hitting its target of women comprising 50% of its executives, a significant jump in a couple of years, Eccles revealed at a parliamentary hearing.

Only 34% of executives in DPC were female as recently as June 2015. As of December 2016, that number had risen to 49%, Eccles told the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee last week.

“We need to lead by example,” he said. “I think as a collective the secretaries board have a responsibility, if you like, to raise the performance of the sector as a whole. I would say DPC is historically coming off a lower base than some other departments, but we are determined, as are the other secretaries, to improve our performance, and I think that is represented by the achievement of nearly half of our executive workforce being women.”

Recruitment processes ‘unconsciously discriminate against women’

The department is currently putting together an evidence base to support the quest for gender equality, revealed deputy secretary for social policy and service delivery reform Rebecca Falkingham. Gender equality targets will follow on from that.

“We are in the process now of developing a strategy to look at everything, particularly from an economic base, around why gender equality is so important to our state, reviewing the range of existing data sources. We have huge data gaps,” she explained.

“When you look at the issues like PAEC [the parliamentary Public Accounts and Estimates Committee], it is very hard to be able to provide the evidence and the case behind why it is so important to bring about the change we need across our entire community. Obviously getting that baseline right is something that we will deliver over the next 12 months, and then setting a complete set of gender equality targets by June 2018. So there is a lot of work to do, and we are working in really close partnership with the community to make sure we get it right.”

DPC has done work to understand the barriers to progress for women in its own organisation, both for executives and other levels, Eccles said. Through a series of workshops, the department asked both men and women what they saw as the impediments to the representation of women in the executive workforce.

“Surprisingly” both men and women gave similar answers, he explained. “There was a common understanding between the two groups as to the factors, some of which go to our recruitment practices — that our recruitment practices unconsciously discriminate against women, and that can be not just as simple as panel representation but also the means by which we go through short-listing and so on.

“There was also something that I found really interesting in the younger women, who were not as confident as the younger males in putting forward their proposition for promotion. It is not quite a confidence deficit, because these are very, very confident young women, but it is just their reticence to put themselves into an overt competitive process. The males tended not to have such a problem with putting themselves forward on the basis of their view of their self-worth and relevance for the job. So our responsibility is to shore up the confidence of our young women, to say, ‘You have every right to have a crack in the same way that your male counterparts are prepared to have a crack’.”

If not a woman, why not a woman?

DPC takes the government’s commitment to achieve 50% female representation on public boards “very seriously”, Falkingham told PAEC member Vicki Ward MP. This has led to a change of mindset.

“We interrogate every single appointment that comes before cabinet, and we ask the question: if not a woman, why not a woman? Really having that lens in DPC I think has really driven departments to change their approaches to appointments. Also having the right tools in place to work with departments is really critical — that when the first response is, ‘Well, there are no suitable women’, to actually go through and give departments the kind of support they need,” she explained.

Since the commitment was made, 51% of all paid appointments between March 2015 and December 2016 were women.

“That is something that we are enormously proud of,” Falkingham said.

“To support the commitment, we do have a new Victorian women-on-boards program, and that is the key to meeting our commitment of ensuring we have a pipeline of talented women ready to go and making sure that they are aware of the opportunities that exist. We found that, talking to a lot of women, they do not know about a lot of the opportunities that come up. We are making sure we have as transparent processes as possible, that as many processes we have around appointments are put out publicly and that we can try and make sure we really lift that number.”

If existing processes are failing to attract women to apply, deliberately going beyond the “usual suspects” can reap significant rewards, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning secretary Adam Fennessy told an event last year. With the intervention of his department, the number of female water board directors has risen from 38.5% to 50.3%.

“The assumption is that retired water engineers, who tend to be men, are the people who tend to be on water boards, plus retired accountants, interestingly,” he said.

“My view is: to be on a board and have good governance skills, you have to understand the community and finance and legal risk and service delivery and regional issues, and they’re broadly held skills. So we kind of went around our normal processes.”

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