Australia ranks second among the G20 for the number of women in senior public sector roles, according to the Global Government Forum’s Women Leaders Index.
At 43.4%, Australia is not far behind the leader, Canada, where 46.4% of top mandarins are women.
Yet both are lagging behind many of the European Union’s smaller states. Women comprise more than half of the highest ranked bureaucrats in five EU member countries — Slovenia, Romania, Latvia, Greece and Bulgaria.
The United States only sits at 34.4%, but this is head and shoulders above those at the bottom of the table — Turkey (8.8%), which has moved backwards for the fourth consecutive year, Japan (3.5%) and Saudi Arabia (1.3%), which only allowed women to gain senior public service jobs in 2015.
The G20 and EU figures are not directly comparable, with the former accounting for the top five tiers of the national civil service and the latter only the top two tiers — though this probably makes the Europeans’ lead even more impressive, given the tendency for the gender gap to get worse the higher you go.
Australia should move faster, says Martin Parkinson
Australia is “showing impressive growth”, the authors note, and has been gaining ground in recent years.
Despite this progress, the report quotes Martin Parkinson, head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, saying “we haven’t moved as fast as we would have liked”.
To address this, the APS has produced a Gender Equality Strategy 2016- 2019.
“The way it’s been set up is that each department had to set ambitious stretch targets for their own situation,” explains Parkinson.
“We don’t require every department to get to 50/50, because if you are starting at 10% now you’re not going to get to 50% in three years’ time. So we’ve asked people to lay out stretch targets across all our business areas for the period out to 2019 and report against them, to show that you are making progress.
“The ultimate objective is to get to 50/50 while also recognising that in a number of areas you won’t necessarily — and in some areas you might already have 65% women, so you wouldn’t be saying that you want to increase numbers there; you will probably be saying how do we get greater cultural diversity.”
Levelling the playing field is not just a question of social justice, but makes good business sense. “People sometimes criticise this as identity politics or political correctness gone mad, but there is no element of that at all,” Parkinson argues.
“This is a bunch of hard-nosed senior leaders starting from asking the question: ‘How do we improve the effectiveness of our organisations? How do we make sure we are delivering the best policies, best programmes, best services we can for our community?”
The Commonwealth has a target of equal numbers of men and women onto government boards, which include policy advisory boards, government business enterprises, and review and inquiry boards. Alongside the creation two years ago of a database called Boardlinks — which holds details of leading women who might be suitable to join government boards — this target has had a big impact, Parkinson says.
“A total of 41% of all positions on government boards are now held by women, and 32% of all chair and deputy chair roles. That’s a big increase”.
But Parkinson concedes the APS continues to have a cultural diversity problem, as Tom Burton recently argued in The Mandarin.
“We’ve been replacing middle-class white men with middle-class white women, so the challenge for us, in a society where almost 50% of our population has at least one parent born outside Australia, is to look more like Australian society,” the head of the APS said.
Janice Charette, who was Canada’s most senior civil servant until January 2016 and is now its High Commissioner to the UK, believes gender equality in the public sector is about ensuring government does its job properly.
“If you look at all the research on this, the value proposition for gender equality and diversity in leadership positions, whether in the public sector or the private sector, is very clear,” she argues.
“And I would say that in the public sector it’s even more important, because if we are to have credible public service structures and institutions that are able to give good, thoughtful, strategic advice to governments, they have to understand and represent the population they are there to serve. That’s absolutely critical.”
The Women Leaders Index has been running since 2013.