National

Michaelia Cash takes aim at public service's 'old boys network'

An "old boys network" in the Australian Public Service has been dominating jobs on government boards, according to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.

But women in the service have the skills to overcome entrenched male power, the minister has told an International Women's Day event in Canberra.

The nation's top public servant Martin Parkinson also told the gathering that departments should go looking for talented women to fill top jobs, rather than relying on them to submit applications.

The comments come after the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed women remain in the minority at the top of the APS, despite making up the majority of workers in the bureaucracy.

Nearly 60 per cent of federal public servants are women, but only 41 per cent of the APS elite senior executive service are female.

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Women are twice as likely as men to have temporary jobs with the service and eight times more likely to work part-time and female public servants are also over-represented among the lower-paid APS classifications.

But Senator Cash, who is also minister for women and for the public service, told the IPAA's International Women's Day event that targets for female representation were compatible with merit-based hiring.

"A target is just a target, something you should try to reach, but you should never appoint other than on merit," the minister said.

"The hard part is going out and finding the women.

"They are there."

The minister said she simply forced her bureaucrats to work harder to look beyond the "old boys network" to find quality female candidates, particularly for government board positions.

"If I'm giving a list of male names and I see the same male names put forward again and again, I ask for women's names," Senator Cash said.

"It's something I can do for government boards. 'Didn't you put him forward for three previous roles?'

"Yes, there is an old boys network, but look at the women here today.

"You cannot tell me you do not have the women to be on boards."

Dr Parkinson, the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet warned recruiters about being "subjective" when making what were supposed to be merit-based appointments.

"We all have a sense of what merit is, but I suspect too often we see merit as being most reflected in people who look like us.

"If this is the case, it's not surprising that the progress of women or people from diverse cultural backgrounds into leadership positions has been slow."

Dr Parkinson called on recruiters to be proactive when looking for quality women to apply for jobs, rather than sitting around waiting for applications to arrive.

"I suspect one culprit is that, when hiring staff, we interpret merit as belonging to the person we could immediately put into a job as a safe pair of hands," he said.

"A recruitment panel's success should be judged on getting about fifty-fifty gender balance in applications.

"It's not a panel's job to sit back and wait for the applications to roll in, it's their job to go out and find good candidates."

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to a Male Champions of Change event. The speeches were made at an International Women's Day breakfast.

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