Australia’s public service reached gender parity at the top. Here’s how



Freja Eriksen

"Some people have started saying 'well that job’s done'"

For the first time there are more women than men across the top jobs of Australia’s civil service (APS), prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on 11 April. Out of the 18 agencies that make up the federal government, nine are now headed by women.

According to Global Gov Forum’s ranking of gender parity in senior civil service leadership, Australia is now second only to Canada in the G20 — and fast catching up. The report predicted it could even take first place “within a year or two.”

When I first started 15 years ago, there was just one female secretary, so that’s huge

To find out what the APS has done that’s working and what challenges remain, Apolitical spoke with the Deputy Public Service Commissioner, Jenet Connell. Connell has also been Deputy Secretary for the departments of finance and immigration.

What are the gender disparities in the public service you are tackling?

Our workforce is actually almost 60% female and 40% male. So, there’s no shortage of women, but they tend to be in lower levels. The focus we’ve had over recent years was about women in leadership positions to try to get that balance back.

The pay gap is also a focus for us — it’s come down pretty consistently over the last five years, and we’re down to 8.6% compared to 16.2% for the whole of Australia. The public sector has structured pay scales — so our pay gap is essentially because there are more women in the lower levels. If you compare men and women at the same levels, then it’s down at around 1%.

In terms of getting women into leadership, which policies have been successful?

We’ve reached a couple of milestones recently. We have 50% of women in our most senior positions now, the secretaries of departments. When I first started 15 years ago, there was just one female secretary, so that’s huge.

one husband and wife share the same role to jointly facilitate their family responsibilities

The other is that 53% of promotions over the last 12 months in the APS have gone to women — so there is significant progress being made.

One key initiative is around flexible work. An “If not, why not” approach has been adopted by most agencies, so any request for flexible work that is denied is actively investigated by the executive. The Department of Finance and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have also commenced a behavioural economics trial to determine the behavioural drivers behind the lower uptake of flexible work by men. And the Attorney-General’s Department has a variety of job-sharing arrangements in place; one husband and wife share the same role to jointly facilitate their family responsibilities, for example.

Young men are saying “I’m being a bit disadvantaged here

Senior APS leaders have committed to the “panel pledge” which makes their participation on panels conditional on meaningful participation by women, and many agencies have even adopted the “panel pledge” in recruitment exercises to increase diversity on assessment panels.

Agencies across the services are also considering the diversity of their teams prior to advertising new positions, and they are then able to tailor their advertisements to ensure wording is either gender neutral or gender filtered to attract certain applicants.

And they are looking at parents and carers: promoting the take up of parental leave by men, developing communication plans for parents who take leave and ensuring employees on leave are aware of job opportunities, and reviewing workplace policies and facilities for breastfeeding and lactation.

Some initiatives — particularly gender blind recruitment, in which hiring committees are not told the gender of applicants for jobs, and unconscious bias training, in which managers are taught to detect and confront their biases — have been more controversial. Several studies have shown they haven’t had the intended effects.

The blind recruitment is interesting — and our colleagues in Canada had exactly the same experience. We both found that once we removed reference to gender, it actually had the reverse impact and skewed things in the wrong direction. Rather than making it gender benign, far more males got through the blind process. It’s interesting and we are having a look at that.

Unconscious bias training — so assisting people in recognising their biases and then how to prevent them — has had mixed reviews. It’s such a complex concept, and where we struggle is simplifying it to the extent that it can used in recruitment processes.

There was lots of training rolled out right across the service. I don’t think there’s been robust evaluation about whether that made a big difference, but it certainly didn’t do any harm.

Have you found resistance from men to all this focus on women?

It’s interesting you ask because we’re just noticing that. We’re just starting to see a little bit of a pushback. We’ve been so successful at creating a focus on gender and females that men — young men — are saying “I’m being a bit disadvantaged here”. Because there’s such a positive bias towards women.

We’re now talking a lot about the future of work and needing to embrace new digital capabilities

We’re 70% female – that’s a problem; our workforce would benefit from a bit more diversity. When I got here four months ago, I went looking for how do we get better balance of men in the workforce, and there’s not a single document, guide or example. We’ve been so focused on getting women.

We travel around Australia with our annual state of the service report and in two forums I’ve had men jumping up and saying “when can we stop this bias towards women in the workforce?”

So there is a tipping point where some people have started saying “well that job’s done, can we please just get on with running the best business now”.

We’re starting to think about what an inclusion agenda looks like which is not compartmentalising the issues into gender, disability, or indigenous categories. We’re going back to basics about creating inclusive workforces and workplaces. Have we learnt enough now that we can start dialing back a little bit?

Do you think we are at that point?

Apolitical 2

>> This piece was originally published on Apolitical, a global platform for public servants. It publishes authoritative writing on public policy and has a particular specialism in gender equality.

>> Denne artikel er oprindeligt udgivet på Apolitical, en global platform for offentligt ansatte. Apolitical skriver kompetent om offentlig politik og er særligt specialiseret inden for ligestilling


We’re getting close; in the public sector, we’re almost at parity. I don’t think we can ever rest on that, but I do think we can start dialling back the narrative. While we have to keep an eye on these aspects of the workforce, the main game is inclusive and flexible. We’re now talking a lot about the future of work and needing to embrace new digital capabilities and the changing face of offices.

We’re all talking about how things are going to change quite rapidly now as technology moves on in leaps and bounds. It’s less solely about gender, and more about the sort of workforce we need for the future and how that will change the way we work.

We can’t take our foot off the pedal, but it does give us pause. At some stage the conversation has to broaden.

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