The first Australian Public Service Diversity and Gender Equality Awards were presented this morning, highlighting four examples of how individual public servants, staff networks and the leaders of organisations can contribute to more inclusive workplaces.
There were 85 nominations for the four awards, coming from all levels of the APS, not just leaders.
First up was the individual award, which went to Justin Lokhorst of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. He is known around the agency for openly discussing his own hearing impairment “to create an environment in which others can speak safely” and challenging negative perceptions of staff from diverse backgrounds.
The runner-up was Clinton Scott-Knight, who has built a program to give Department of Health staff a one-day crash course in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that has been attended by over 500 staff since July 2016. He shares personal stories and encourages staff to think about ways they can make a difference.
There were also two special mentions. Jocelyn Gibson of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources was nominated for her work supporting LGBTIQ staff. Sreta Mrkic from the Department of Human Services has been helping out a colleague who acquired a brain injury.
The awards were presented this morning by deputy public service commissioner Stephanie Foster, as commissioner John Lloyd is on leave. The minister responsible for the public service, Michaelia Cash, was not around either but the head of the APS, Martin Parkinson, addressed the large group of invited guests including other secretaries and staff from the agencies that were nominated.
Parkinson said it was important that “all people of merit have a chance to prosper and progress” in the APS.
“The last thing thing I want to do as head of the APS is to have a culture, though, that allows only people like us, who are already secretaries, to be the ones who prosper and progress,” he told the gathering (more below).
Foster noted that some organisations like the National Disability Insurance Agency, which won the organisation award for its efforts to be a model employer for people with disabilities, were firmly in “the diversity space” while others like Safe Work Australia, the runner-up to the NDIA, were not.
She recognised there were “smaller agencies that have fewer resources to dedicate to diversity, or particular functional areas that really struggle to attract a diverse workforce, and they’re still taking actions that represent really big steps towards creating really inclusive workplaces.”
“Those who pushed against barriers to diversity and gender equality should be recognised, congratulated for their hard work, especially when it happens in the face of resistance and obstacles,” said Foster.
The Australian Taxation Office network for LGBTIQ staff and allies, ATOMIC, pipped the Network of Employment Women in IT (NEWinIT) from the Department of Employment. The ATO staff network is one of the most prominent in the APS with over 1700 members.
NEWinIT has about 150, and aims to support women working in the heavily male-dominated field through initiatives like mentoring programs and targeted learning and development opportunities.
Finally, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson took the stage to accept the gender equality award, for implementation of the Women in Leadership strategy that was put in place shortly before she took over the top job from Peter Varghese. The audience heard it had already “driven deep cultural change in the department” through policies like “all roles flex” and gender targets.
The Defence Science and Technology Group (a fairly separate organisation which was only recently folded into the Department of Defence) was runner up in this category.
Having a workforce of mainly science and technology professionals with strong ties to the Defence Force has influenced the DST group’s organisational culture, and amplified challenges in addressing gender equity, according to the judging comments.
DST’s Gender Equity Working Group focuses on inclusive language, addressing problems in “real time” and setting meeting times in consideration of flexible working arrangements.
Martin Parkinson: no silver bullets but keep pushing
In Martin Parkinson’s experience, “there is no checklist or silver bullet” to create a more inclusive workplace culture in an organisation. It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.
“The reasons for the disparity are complex, cultural and interconnected, so our solutions must be, too,” he said.
“Visible leadership” is important and, according to Parkinson, one way senior leaders can support diversity and inclusion in in the choices they make when mentoring and picking out certain staff with high potential.
Sponsorship has become a “dirty word” in the APS, he observed, arguing it really should not be seen as an attack on the merit principle. It did not mean that people would be parachuted into jobs “irrespective of their ability or readiness” just to help meet diversity targets.
According to Parkinson, if he tells a manager that he thinks a particular person is “worth a look” they should not take that to mean he is directing them to appoint the person to a certain job.
Along with the obvious “ethical and moral” reasons for influential people to stand against the entrenched and often invisible discrimination in society, he is also a firm advocate of the business case for diversity.
He said research showed diverse workforces were “more innovative, more creative and more successful” than more homogenous ones, and that diverse teams are also open minded, relying on facts more often than assumptions – “an important thing if we really are to be an evidence-based APS”.
As an economist, he feels “instinctively” that lack of diversity logically means that talent is being wasted and “limiting your leadership pool is neither optimal or sustainable”.
Parkinson said the APS needs to represent the public it serves but he doesn’t expect the demographic breakdown to be identical.
“But if we aren’t, if we don’t have that inherent diversity, we have to be an organisation that is able to acquire diversity, through experience,” he added.
“That is, by going out and talking to people who have different experiences, different perspectives, and being able to bring that back with an open mind into the work that we do.
“The more we reflect our citizens, either through inherent or acquired diversity… the more likely we are to create citizen-centric policy that gets better outcomes for all Australians.”
When one looks at the current senior executive cohort, it does not remotely reflect the diversity of Australia, but it does probably reflect the stereotypical public servant, Parkinson suggested.
“It’s inconceivable that the lack of diverse representation in the APS is due to a difference in ability,” he said.
“It must reflect the fact that we need to change our systems, structures and processes to make sure that the leaders of tomorrow can come from all backgrounds.”
He said recruitment is just the start; all people also need to have a genuinely equal opportunity to make their way up the ladder, and made the point that diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. The first is a quantitative measure and the second qualitative. Inclusion is about everyone’s contributions being equally valued and without it, diversity doesn’t help much, in Parkinson’s view.
Beyond the big four targets of historical discrimination – Indigenous people, the LGBTIQ community, women and people with disabilities – he said the public service needs more diversity in ways of thinking, working and leadership. When people’s views are ignored by government it only creates deeper divisions.
Or, as Parkinson puts it, “the fissures that emerge when diverse views are locked out of decision making only serve to entrench myopia… they only serve to build distance between us and the people who we have committed to serve by becoming public servants.”