When the Australian Federal Police undertook a new approach to remove gender bias from its promotional decisions, it received some pushback — from both men and women.
The AFP decided to de-identify applications, removing not just name and gender, but any information that could allow panel members to identify applicants. This was done first for executives and then in a sergeants’ round.
Some were supportive of the move, others unsure. There were men who thought it would be pointless applying for a promotion that time, and women who didn’t want to put their hand up because they were worried they wouldn’t be seen as having gained their promotion on merit.
“The most frequent concern raised in relation to gender equality activities, internally and externally, is that the AFP will lower its standards in order to meet diversity targets,” notes a Male Champions of Change report on how to deal with backlash and ensure buy-in for gender equality policies.
The report outlines how the AFP responded to staff concerns:
- Communicated how and why: focus was placed on how the activity was merit-based and how the change would bring equitable outcomes for all. It was clearly linked to presentations given by the commissioner on levelling the playing field for all applicants by removing the potential for unconscious — or conscious — bias.
- Ensured leaders step up: senior leaders made time to connect with potential applicants. They encouraged and challenged why they weren’t applying.
- Resourced for change: extended timeframes and human resources staff were put in place to manage the change.
- Provided information and examples of the new process: comprehensive information sessions were held and example de-identified CVs were used to ensure a fair and equitable approach.
- Embedded and improved for the long-term: after the first blind promotion round, the lessons learned were collated and the process adjusted to ensure better outcomes for next time.
So what did the AFP learn from its experience?
It offers these lessons:
- Understand not everyone will get on board with gender equality initiatives, but many will — some need time and information to get behind the work.
- The pay-off is worth the effort — the blind promotion rounds took more focus and resources than previous ways of doing things but ultimately drove higher representation of women in leadership roles.
- The backlash against a particular initiative often subsides once implemented — concerns about the blind promotional rounds have largely subsided since the completion of the process.
- Having clear and open communication supported fully by the commissioner is critical to ensuring the success of gender equality activities and changing not only the gender balance but also the culture of the AFP, one process at a time.
Openly discussing these concerns is useful for dispelling myths. Andrew Colvin, commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, wants people to talk about gender equality:
“In the past I think that we had a culture that either didn’t encourage people to speak up, or, if they did speak up, they were ostracised; they were pushed to the margins. We needed to make it safe that you could come forward because I still believe that we needed to expose and air our weaknesses and challenges before we could really start to improve.”
As does Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson:
“It is important to create a safe place, a space where people can genuinely respectfully disagree, put differences of view, have them tested and always play the issue, not the man or the woman. As a leader you’ve got to find a way to manage that disagreement.”
Having the discussion
The report also includes advice on how to respond to those who are resistant to change.
It can be useful to understand what drives backlash. Common reasons, according to the report, are: lack of understanding, change fatigue, industry norms, cultural norms, and fear.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “it should be the best person for the job, not diversity for diversity’s sake” or “women don’t want to work in this industry”? Perhaps there are men who complain that improving women’s representation as a zero-sum game leading to fewer opportunities for themselves?
The Male Champions of Change report recommends the following responses:
- Share the stories and experiences of women in the organisation/industry.
- Clearly communicate the business case for gender equality and the strategic requirements for the business in the future.
- Demonstrate that the organisation is hiring for the skills required now and in the future — merit-based appointing.
- Clearly communicate the facts and explain the reasons for gender equality strategies and new appointments.
- Invite employee groups to be part of developing and executing action plans to achieve gender equality.
- Directly address behaviours that reflect sexism, discrimination or harassment.
- Demonstrate how change benefits all employees.
- Communicate the rationale around appointments and promotions and how merit was applied to make the decision.