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DPM&C study finds public servants more likely to hire women

Years of public service gender diversity efforts may have succeeded in making bureaucrats more likely to hire women then men, a new study by the Prime Minister's "nudge unit" suggests.

The "behavioural economics" team have warned that the "blind recruitment" techniques currently in vogue across the public service might be doing more harm than good to the job prospects of senior women.

Blind recruitment aims to eliminate "unconscious bias" in the hiring process by removing names and other identifying data from applications so a decision maker does not know if the applicant is male or female, and can not even guess at their ethnic background.

The technique is being used or trialled across the public service and in commercial organisations eager to boost the number of women at the top and was credited in 2016 with doubling the proportion of female bosses at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

But the result from the new study could turn the present thinking on gender employment diversity on its head.

In its study, published today, the nudge unit from Malcolm Turnbull's Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet used 2100 public servants from 14 departments to assess applications for a hypothetical senior role in their organisation.

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The bureaucrats were randomly assigned traditional or "blind" applications.

The researchers found the public servants "engaged in positive (not negative) discrimination towards female and minority candidates."

"Participants were 2.9 per cent more likely to shortlist female candidates and 3.2 per cent less likely to shortlist male applicants when they were identifiable, compared with when they were de-identified.

"Minority males were 5.8 per cent more likely to be shortlisted and minority females were 8.6 per cent more likely to be shortlisted when identifiable compared to when applications were de-identified.

"The positive discrimination was strongest for Indigenous female candidates who were 22.2 per cent more likely to be shortlisted when identifiable compared to when the applications were de-identified."

The nudge unit suggests their results could be important.

"This is critically useful knowledge," wrote study leader Michael Hiscox.

"Introducing de-identification of applications in such a context may have the unintended consequence of decreasing the number of female and minority candidates shortlisted for senior APS positions, setting back efforts to promote more diversity at the senior management levels in the public service.

"It does not imply that the APS has solved the problem of gender equality at the executive levels and higher – or lack of diversity more generally – but it tells us that rather than putting the focus on bias in initial reviews of job applicants, it may be more valuable to direct attention to other stages of recruitment."

The Australian Public Service has made progress in gender diversity but acknowledges there is much work to be done.

The report noted that women comprised 59 per cent of of the APS, at the last count, but just under 49 per cent of its executive level officers and only 43 of its elite Senior Executive Service.

But "blind" application process may not be the answer, Professor Hiscox wrote.

"Overall, the results indicate the need for caution when moving towards 'blind' recruitment processes in the Australian Public Service, as de-identification may frustrate efforts aimed at promoting diversity," he wrote.

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