Gender tops diversity priorities in new APS champion awards

By Harley Dennett

September 7, 2017

Australia’s public sector award season is expanding again this year with a new set of trophies to recognise and encourage the efforts of colleagues. Joining the awards for excellence in public sector management, the annual report awards, the innovation awards and the digital excellence awards, and probably more we’ve missed, will be the APS diversity and gender equality awards.

The awards are available for individuals, departments or agencies, and employee networks. Nominations may be made by anyone though the Australian Public Service Commission website, but be prepared to write up to 1000 words in the application. Small agencies have been particularly encouraged to apply.

The categories themselves tell us something about priorities and how the Australian Public Service is approaching diversity and inclusion in ways quite different from comparable public administrations in the UK, New Zealand and Canada.

For example, gender equality comes out on top in multiple ways. Not only is it the only inclusion area that is right there in the awards’ name, it’s the only one that has its own dedicated category, guaranteeing that Minister for Women Michaelia Cash will have a photo opportunity.

The next tier down covers Indigenous, disability, LGBTI, and culturally and linguistically diverse employment. These areas will be competing for the department or agency award. They’ll also be competing with gender equality for the individual champion and employee network awards.

Age sits on the bottom tier, previously cited as a priority area by none other than head of the APS, Dr Martin Parkinson, but won’t be recognised in these awards.

The activities and priorities of the peak diversity body in the APS — most recently renamed the Secretaries Board’s equality and diversity council — has traditionally been low profile, and during earlier incarnations arguably dormant. That was until last year when Dr Parkinson decided it was time to make a clear bold statement.

Dr Parkinson urged public servants to hold their executive leadership to account, and “demand real and sustainable cultural change” when they see workplaces that aren’t in keeping with the spirit of inclusion. That call, plus the awards, will support the council’s mission “to break down formal and informal barriers to ensure the APS provides an inclusive and respectful workplace for everyone.”

The council is the sponsoring body for APS-wide strategies, such as the Gender Equality Strategy, the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy and the APS Disability Employment Strategy. It has encouraged agencies to host workplace conversations, including through existing opportunities like International Women’s Day and NAIDOC week. The awards will be another opportunity.

These awards may also go some way to reversing the chilling effect when inclusion champions have been hung out to dry for advancing beyond the tolerance of sections of the community. When Muslim inclusion champion Navy Captain Mona Shindy was viciously targeted by News Corp publications last year other diversity advocates told The Mandarin they would now hesitant to stick their neck out for their organisation and leaders.

LGBTI employment marks a new chapter

The 2017 APS Census added a new question, “Do you identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and/or Intersex (LGBTI+)?” for the first time allowing statistics to be gathered about sexual orientation and gender identity for Commonwealth public servants. The Defence Census made a similar step the year before, albeit a printing mistake meant nobody who correctly followed the pathing instructions would ever answer it.

Census questions are an important step because without the ability to measure impact, progress is unlikely to be made.

The inclusion of LGBTI in these awards represents how much progress has been made in the moving beyond exclusionary laws and policies, including superannuation laws that financially penalised Commonwealth employees in same-sex relationships until only a few years ago.

It also brings Australia closer to the UK and other comparable countries in their public sector LGBTI inclusion efforts.

But it’s not all rainbows and acceptance for public sector LGBTI inclusion.

Members of the parliament and sections of the media have made no secret that they consider visible LGBTI inclusion signals, such as rainbow flags or recognition of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) to be counter to Australian values. Some have implied that simply identifying as part of the LGBTI community in public is tantamount to campaigning for same-sex marriage.

In the public sector, unlike the private sector, LGBTI inclusion champions must endure a situation similar to that Senator Penny Wong faced several years ago. The then minister for finance and deregulation had to defend a Gillard government policy in public that was 180 degrees from her internal same-sex inclusion advocacy. The stress of such a conflict is compounded by its personal affront.

In the event the APS diversity and gender equality awards judges choose to recognise an LGBTI champion or network, their acceptance speech would have to be one of the shortest on record — if they want to keep their job.

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