Public service commission and PM&C set the tone for APS gender plans

By Stephen Easton

May 5, 2017

For the Australian Public Service, one consequence of Malcolm Turnbull rolling Tony Abbott in 2015 and re-hiring Martin Parkinson to head up the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has been more high-level support for the promotion of gender equality.

The former prime minister, who sacked Parkinson from his former job as Treasury boss, recently listed the PM&C secretary’s acceptance that unconscious bias had probably affected past recruitment and promotion decisions among many signs that “the long march of the left through our institutions is almost complete”.

The socially conservative Abbott might be even more dismayed to learn that PM&C is not content with a roughly even split between men and women in its senior executive ranks. It wants to achieve diversity in other ways, too.

Following the release of the APS-wide gender strategy last April, PM&C and the Australian Public Service Commission have both followed up with their own internal gender equality action plans, setting the tone for other agencies.

The APSC action plan is a simple and succinct affair in the form of a colourful two-page document that lists statistics about its own mostly female workforce and commitments to support it, like becoming a “breastfeeding friendly workplace”, as well as actions it will take in its role as the central human resources agency.

The PM&C document is much more substantial and no doubt a useful exemplar for other agencies, with a long list of the practical actions that aim to maintain and build the most diverse workforce possible.

Of course, socially progressive views that so annoy conservatives like Abbott are no longer strongly linked to left-wing political and economic views — defined more by support for organised labour and universal, publicly funded services like education, healthcare and transport — which have very much gone the opposite way in terms of influencing government policy over the past 40-50 years.

In accepting the idea that unconscious bias has actually been undermining merit-based selection for all these years, and that organisational performance therefore improves with more gender balance and pay equity, Parkinson is no radical outlier.

Setting targets to achieve gender balance and efforts to recognise and reduce the unconscious bias represent a big trend in the corporate world that is driven by business imperatives as much as a desire for social equity. While opposition to this trend is one front in the culture wars, it seems far removed from the political and economic debates that ultimately shape government policy.

The central agency has noted that while about half of its senior executives are women, they are still mostly Caucasian and able-bodied. And, “anecdotally, as there is no mechanism for formal identification, women identifying as lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or intersex” are not believed to have made it into the SES ranks in big numbers.

“PM&C is well positioned to embed gender equality into the fabric of the organisation,” according to its plan, released last week, with women making up 66.4% of the total workforce and 46.7% of the SES ranks. Balance is already achieved, but the department aims to go further, beyond the simple metric of men versus women:

“Despite the gender balanced nature of the SES cohort, we need to ensure that women from all backgrounds have an opportunity to reach the highest levels of the organisation.”

The strategy document compares the department’s senior ranks to the general population, in which roughly 18% of people have a disability, 3% are Indigenous and 28% are from otherwise “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) backgrounds. The PM&C workforce looks like this:

Diversity group Current representation in PM&C at APS grades 1-6 Current representation in PM&C at EL grades 1-2 Current representation in PM&C at SES grades 1-3
Women from CALD backgrounds 4.9% 2.3% 2.8%
Indigenous women 14.6% 4.9% 2.8%
Women with disabilities 2.0% 0.6% 0.9%

As for the LGBTI community:

“The department does not currently collect data on sexual orientation and no staff member has yet formally identified as gender non-specified. Feedback will be sought from the LGBTI Network, and external organisations to determine whether optional identification within HR systems would be beneficial to increase inclusion of staff who identify as LGBTI.”

The department plans to make sure men and women make up at least 40% of its workforce into the future, and has the same minimum quota for membership of government boards within the PM&C portfolio, with a “stretch target” of 50-50. Other targets include a 50-50 split in Parkinson’s executive board appointments, and in the SES ranks. Plans to increase diversity in other forms, including age, are yet to be drawn up:

“PM&C is exploring initiatives to increase the proportion of female SES coming from a diverse background such as CALD, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, disability, LGBTI or from a mature aged demographic.”

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