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How to deliver gender equity in the public service

7 March 2019

News and media


Fearless Girl in Melbourne

The keys to closing the equity gap in Australia’s public services are addressing unconscious bias, expanding our definitions of merit and better support for flexible work arrangements, according to UNSW Canberra academic Dr Sue Williamson.

Dr Williamson, speaking at an ANZSOG International Women’s Day event, said that real progress had been made but it was hindered by “gender fatigue”, which included organisations denying gender inequality was an issue.

“The key issues remain: unconscious bias, merit and flexible working arrangements. We need to keep having these conversations,” she said.

Dr Williamson’s ANZSOG-funded research project into gender equity in public services, conducted with Dr Linda Colley (CQUniversity), Dr Meraiah Foley (UNSW Canberra) and Professor Rae Cooper (University of Sydney) – has identified that empowering middle managers was the key to closing this gap.

The report contains practical ideas for improving gender equity.

Currently, women make up the majority of public servants, but only 45 per cent of senior managers and remain clustered in lower paid positions.

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Middle managers behind push for change

Dr Williamson said that middle managers were behind the idea of gender equity but needed support to make it happen.

“Middle managers are the lynchpin when it comes to presenting policies. They are in a difficult position, they are managing staff and also ‘managing up’ so the question is how do they do gender equity on top of everything else,” Dr Williamson said.

She said that there were still organisations that did not see gender issues as a problem.

“We get the response that ‘gender has been fixed’ or it is ‘not a problem in our agency’.

“Some managers recognise that there are pockets of culture that need addressing, or that women are having difficulty progressing through the agency, or that they are funnelled into certain areas.”

She said the major issues managers raised were:

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

Introducing ‘bias disruptors’

Dr Williamson said that there was no one solution to gender inequity but that it was important to keep explaining the agency-wide benefits of gender equity, encouraging men to attend events and to share stories about wins.

She said that some concepts were failing to create change.

“Unconscious bias training does not work. Standalone training is a waste of time, and in some circumstances, it can simply reinforce biases,” she said.

She said that the trend of “anonymous recruitment” where gender is hidden in CVs was opposed by public sector managers who felt it denied them agency.

“Some of the results of a trial in the Australian Public Service have been that this actually reduced the number of women on shortlists.

“When it comes to the idea of targets or quotas in the public service there is a lack of understanding and awareness, and concerns about tokenism.

“We need to expand our definitions of merit and ensure that people understand that demographic characteristics can be part of merit.”

She said that introducing “bias disruptors” was a better way to break down systems that were reproducing bias.

This could be assembling a shortlist, and then sending it to an independent assessor for input; or revising job descriptions, advertising and search mechanisms to ensure shortlists with an even gender split.

“Public services tend to do the same HR processes that they have always done,” she said.

Conclusions from @SWilliamsonUNSW’s gender equality research: – Public sector organisations are committed to progressing gender equity- There’s still a way to go- Merit is the new area of focus. WATCH: https://t.co/dtxxGIae6l #InternationalWomensDay#IWD⁠ ⁠ #IWD2019pic.twitter.com/6BdMAoPxzu

— ANZSOG (@ANZSOG) March 7, 2019

Supporting flexible work

Flexible work is essential to enable women with caring responsibilities to stay in the public service, but it needed to be supported with measures to ensure that they still had opportunities for career development and mobility, Dr Williamson said.

This could include more training, the chance to work on new and high-profile projects, and creating an environment where staff who are backfilling or acting in positions felt empowered to try new things.

Dr Williamson said a key concern raised by managers was that organisations needed to take reduced capacity from increasing flexibility into account when it came to setting deadlines and business planning.

“Managers told us that being promoted to senior executive roles while working part-time was ‘theoretically possible, but not probable’,” she said.

Dr Williamson said that the public sector had a good record on gender equity and flexible work when compared to the private sector.

“The public sector is definitely an employer of choice for many women, but there are examples of good practice in the private sector as well.

“One difference is that things can change very quickly in private sector companies, for example Telstra decided to make all roles flexible in 2014, and this happened very quickly, whereas in the public sector things tend to happen more slowly.”

She said that there was strong international research that organisations that shifted to a four-day week, or a six-hour day, had not seen a reduction in output or productivity, and that this supported the case for more flexible work.

Dr Williamson concluded that public sector organisations still had a way to go to counter entrenched gender biases and gendered organisations.

The full report from the ANZSOG-funded research project is available from the Public Service Research Group’s website.