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14 ways public sector middle managers can improve gender equity

31 July 2018

News and media


Most public sector middle managers are committed to progressing gender equity – but need more support to make it happen, new ANZSOG-funded research has found.

Based on interviews and focus groups with 300 public sector managers in New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania the The Role of Middle Managers in Progressing Gender Equity in the Public Sector report, has led to the development of a Leading Practice Guide outlining strategies to increase managers’ capacity to improve workplace gender equity.

These include:

changes to culture and recruiting
greater encouragement of flexible work options
and redefining jobs to make them more suitable for part-time work.

On average, women make up around two-thirds of public sector employees, but less than 50 per cent of senior leadership positions in all four jurisdictions.

Despite gender equity commitments in the public service, including creating family-friendly workplaces, the report states there is a ‘gap between expectations and the lived experience of women in public sector workplaces’.

The researchers – Dr Sue Williamson (UNSW Canberra) Dr Linda Colley (CQUniversity), Dr Meraiah Foley (UNSW Canberra) and Professor Rae Cooper (University of Sydney) –  identified that empowering middle managers was the key to closing this gap.

“The overwhelming majority of managers we spoke with are committed to increasing and embedding gender equity in their teams and their agencies,” Dr Williamson said.

“The main challenges arise from a lack of time and resources to improve gender equity on the ground, as well as at the strategic level. For example, managers regularly recruit staff, yet often lack the time and resources to conduct an analysis of the materials and processes to make sure that the most equitable outcomes are achieved.”

While many central agencies are actively pursuing gender targets, middle managers had several concerns which may inhibit the achievement of those targets.

These centred on a lack of understanding by senior management of how flexible work can compromise responsiveness and productivity, and of how capacity can be impacted when staff shift to part-time work.

Some managers argued that despite the overall representation of women in the public sector, some forms of gender inequity were being overlooked despite being embedded in the public sector. 

These include: 

gendered cultures and behaviours
limited opportunities for individuals (mainly women) with caring responsibilities or working part-time
horizontal and occupational segregation 
and entrenched sex role stereotyping.

The researchers have created a Leading Practice Guide which provides practical strategies for middle managers who want to improve gender equity and opportunities for women in their organisations. The strategies cover cultural change, human resources processes, technology and practical support. Below are 14 of the key recommendations from the Guide

14 ways public sector middle managers can improve gender equity

1. Go outside the standard avenues when searching for candidates and try different recruitment methods such as: blind recruitment, work tests, presentations, role plays and activities that challenge how candidates respond in different situations.

2. Aim for shortlists to have an even gender split of applicants. If this is not possible, consider revising the job description, advertising and search mechanisms.

3. Make it clear that flexibility is not just a ‘women’s’ issue, it is good business practice. Encourage men and those at higher levels to access flexible arrangements and promote this as positive case studies.

4. Celebrate early wins publicly and share successful stories about positive gender equity figures and new approaches to working flexibly. This will enable employees to see how gender equity benefits them personally.

5. Use portions of part-time positions to create new positions for acting, higher duties or backfilling opportunities for others.

6. Design jobs around a collection of tasks, not necessarily around making up one new full-time position.

7. Implement and analyse job-sharing arrangements to identify the productivity of a six day week (as a job-share) over one full-time equivalent position.

8. Consider attracting different genders to non-traditional roles. Identify blockages in recruitment pathways and ask why different people are not applying. 

9. Include men in conversations about gender equity. Explain the business benefits of gender equity to everyone and encourage men to attend gender equity events.

10. Plan work so that everyone – including part-time staff – has the opportunity to work on interesting and prestigious projects.

11. Insist on appropriate technology to support staff who work flexibly. Provide laptops, shared calendar access, shared document editing platforms and remote meeting options.

12. Discuss office communication requirements, standards of work and expectations on output. Provide guidelines on working from home.

13. When putting project teams and workplans together, consider those working flexibly and accurately forecast resource needs and deadlines.

14. Make decisions on workplace flexibility by consulting with the team, so it’s a shared response, not just the responsibility of the manager and employee 

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Professor Ken Smith said there were still a lot of barriers preventing Australian public services from achieving gender equity.

“This report demonstrates that gender equity will only be achieved if it is something that is embraced right through public sector organisations. Middle managers, who incidentally make the bulk of hiring decisions, need to be part of efforts to increase the representation of women as well as other poorly represented groups,” Professor Smith said. 

“Part of the solution needs to be cultural change and recognition of hidden biases against women, and part needs to be greater provision of flexible working arrangements for both men and women.”

The researchers said that one of the aims of the project was to identify good practice and spread those ideas as widely as possible.

They said that public service managers had proved to be an innovative group, working out their own solutions to improve workplace flexibility. For example, when faced with a cyclical, regular increase in workload, some managers negotiated with their part-time staff to work full-time for the busiest periods of the year.

Others had taken the 0.4 or 0.2 remaining when a full-time worker shifted to part-time and created a new position, which was used to provide another staff member with an acting opportunity, or to ‘float’ across the workgroup, undertaking work as needed.

The report is part of a long-term research project, which will continue to try and identify systemic and structural impediments to gender equity, and workplace management reforms and examine the different approaches of the jurisdictions.

It will support the development of best practice by providing reports and workshops to discuss research findings and convert them into policy. It will also develop teaching and case study resources, so that ANZSOG students can become ambassadors for best practice and

contribute to policy and practice solutions back in their workplaces.

The full report is available from the Public Service Research Group’s website.