APS gender equality strategies: one year on


May 11, 2017

Office life: young secretary knocking on her boss? door

The Australian government released the APS Gender Equality Strategy in April 2016. A year on, most APS departments have developed their own strategies. The overarching goal of the strategies is to make the APS a model employer and pace-setter for other industries.

Research tells us that several key elements are needed to progress workplace gender equality and make an organisation an employer of choice for women.  These include: commitment from senior management, buy-in from all staff, and an ongoing organisational change process to embed cultures which allow gender equality to flourish.

So, do these departments’ policies incorporate these factors?

The strategies all appear to have high level support, with many stating that SES officers will model behaviours to progress gender equality, such as working flexibly and demonstrably combining work with caring responsibilities.

Less visible are processes to engage all staff in the gender equality endeavour and in many of the plans, responsibility for implementation rests with human resource sections. The lower focus on these two factors means that gender equality concerns may lack support from the whole organisation and not be as effective as they otherwise could be.

The Department of Communication and the Arts’ (DoCA) gender equality plan is exemplary, and does incorporate mechanisms to ensure gender equality issues are everyone’s responsibility. One of this department’s actions is to develop leaders’ understanding of, and commitment to, gender equality. While such a move may appear fairly routine, it has transformative potential.

“Considering how to make all jobs flexible is a new way of working for the public sector, and is to be welcomed.”

Ensuring that senior management understands gender equality and can implement the plan’s actions provides a necessary foundation for successful implementation. Similarly, DoCA will conduct focus groups with staff around diversity and equality issues. This can result in gender equality messages and actions being spread throughout the department.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s strategy is also a model for other APS agencies, as highlighted last week. It goes beyond implementing specific initiatives to progress gender equality for different groups of women, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and those with disability. Such a move is at the forefront of implementing diversity initiatives.

The Department of Social Services also recognises the importance of accommodating and valuing people’s multiple identities. One initiative focuses on increasing the numbers of male leaders with disability. In a department which is heavily female-dominated, breaking down barriers for male employees — particularly those from diversity target groups — is another form of securing gender equality.

Culture change is also dependent on not only securing ‘wins’ early  in the life of a strategy, but also ensuring that early gains are built upon. This is an area lacking in some of the strategies, with many initiatives being rolled out this year, but with little follow up or linkages between them.

The Department of Employment’s strategy, however, provides a good example of designing gender equality initiatives to have a cumulative impact. For example, in the first year the department will trial ‘all roles flex’, or a system where flexible working is the default working arrangement. In the second and third years, this initiative will be embedded within the department through sharing success stories and the development of training modules to support the roll-out of all roles flex.

Several of the departments (including the Department of Industry and Innovation, the Department of Social Services, Treasury and the Department of Employment) have committed to implementing an all roles flex trial. PM&C has already undertaken such a trial. Considering how to make all jobs flexible is a new way of working for the public sector, and is to be welcomed.

As we have written earlier, such a system destigmatises those who work flexibly and benefits not only the individual, but also the organisation. We also note that several of the departments’ strategies contain a commitment to examining job design, which is an essential element in making all roles flexible.

We have been examining the implementation of gender equality initiatives in the APS for the past year. We have found evidence of many good initiatives, and this tranche of departmental gender equality strategies suggests great things lie ahead.

Sue Williamson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Meraiah Foley is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at UNSW Canberra.

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