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Public service fails senior women, gender equality report says

Project leader ... Professor Meredith Edwards, a former deputy secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Project leader ... Professor Meredith Edwards, a former deputy secretary at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Photo: Andrew Meares

The Australian Public Service has failed for almost 20 years to live up to its own standards in hiring women for its top jobs, a new landmark study has found.

Senior women in the bureaucracy told researchers from the University of Canberra they had to cope with a ''boys club'', they were seen as ''soft and fragile'' and reported pressure to conform to ''aggressive'' and ''masculine'' working cultures.

The study by the university's ANSZOG Institute for Governance looked for the first time at levels of senior female leadership in six Commonwealth departments and found ''a fundamental disjuncture between the formally espoused values of the APS and its practices''.

The study's final report, Still Not 50/50, will be launched at a conference at Old Parliament House on Thursday, and even warns that, in a time of public service cuts and downsizing, any gains that have been made in the past 20 years are in danger of being eroded.

Fifty-seven per cent of the public service workforce is female but only 39 per cent of its senior executives are women. In some departments, such as defence, the level of female senior leadership is as low as 27 per cent.

Only four out of 20 departments are headed by women and three of those are departments with traditionally strong female representation: education, health, and families and community services.

One of the project's leaders, Emeritus Professor Meredith Edwards, said this was the first time a gender equality research project had been undertaken on such scale in the service and that it exposed a yawning gap between what the federal bureaucracy practised and what it preached.

''There's rhetoric and reality,'' she said.

Professor Edwards, a former deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minster and Cabinet, said a key to getting more women into senior jobs was flexible working arrangements, but they were practically non-existent in the service's elite senior executive service.

''We got equal opportunity legislation in 1984 and we got permanent flexible part-time work around that time as well,'' Professor Edwards said.

''But if you look at senior executive service women, less than 5 per cent are in part-time employment. I was flabbergasted when I saw that figure.

''That just shows that the rhetoric is there around flexibility about part-time work but the reality is different and increasingly so in a 24-7 world.

''One of the really big issues, if we're going to change the culture, is how we mainstream flexibility in the workplace both full time and part time.''

Professor Edwards said little had changed since the 1980s.

''I was writing in this space back then, in the mid-1980s,'' she told Fairfax Media.

''There is a paper that [now Public Service Commissioner] Steve Sedgwick gave in 1994 and, if you read that report today, you could tweak it a little and you could be talking about today.

''The figures are different but the cultures are very similar.''

But Mr Sedgwick told Fairfax Media he believed much progress had been made pointing out that women made up just 0.2 per cent of senior public service executives then, compared with 39 per cent today.

The commissioner also said some factors relating to under-representation of women in senior levels were historic and would have less of an effect in the coming years.

''I gave you the data going back through my lived experience, in a sense, in the public service in looking at the way that the numbers of women in senior jobs has risen over time,'' Mr Sedgwick said.

''Now, the journey is not over, we're still not 50-50 but we're in that zone.''

37 comments

  • 50/50 implies that the true goal is equality of outcome rather than true equality of opportunity which is what we are aiming for.

    Yet another article that doesn't even skim the surface of the many possible reasons why women would not have 50/50 representation at these levels, first among them being choice.

    Commenter
    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    July 24, 2013, 1:15PM
    • One key reason was touched on by Professor Edwards but then completely overlooked.
      That is, the shock that only 5 per cent of executives were permanent part-time.
      The shock of that number indicates to me an expectation from Professor Edwards that part-time employees should still be granted all opportunities that full-time employees are, which is just ridiculous.

      If two people both have similar credentials but one is available twice as long each week than the other, and has more experience from having worked the role full-time instead of part-time for the last few years, employers are going to favour the full-time worker.

      Seriously, an increase from 0.2% to 39% in the space of 20 years is phenomenal, and the number would increase further in future purely through natural attrition (retirements in senior positions).

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 1:13PM
  • The female SES are a nightmare to deal with..

    Commenter
    Mangus
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 24, 2013, 1:28PM
    • Yes, I still can hear their screams, loud talks and explosive laughs for no good reasons at all at the other end of the floor. What a way to socialize and achieve bonding at workplaces.

      Commenter
      myduyen
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 1:26PM
  • I remember a comment the Dalai Lama said about women. He said he had no doubt that a woman would become a Dalai Lama one day - even the next one - provided she was more useful in the role than a man. That pretty much sums up life. It is ruthlessly efficient in that it manages to get the best person in the right job for the times. That is often unfair I know, but that's the world we currently live in. And if you think that the less muscled-up males aren't on the receiving end as well, think again.

    Commenter
    RobP
    Date and time
    July 24, 2013, 2:09PM
    • "Provided she was more useful in the role than a man" implies that the default choice would be a man. What about "provided she was as useful in the role as a man". Massive difference.

      And sure, less muscled-up males may be disadvantaged, but physical appearance isn't immediately obvious on a job application. I have the "disadvantage" of having a girl's name (and in fact, being a girl) to contend with before I'm even considered for a position.

      Commenter
      Jane
      Date and time
      July 24, 2013, 3:16PM
    • The right person for the job??

      Since when has that been a criterion, especially in the public sector? Cronyism rules and men and women are only appointed if they are in the right pockets, crawling to the right people. Gender is way down on the list next to willingness to tug the forelock.

      Check the bullying catastrophe in the Australian public sector:

      http://www.apsbullying.com/bullying--victimisation-news.html

      Over a billion $ in compensation for bullying shouts out that management quality is hopeless.

      So much for efficiency, rather a sheltered institution costing the public a fortune.

      Commenter
      yikes
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 6:45AM
    • yikes,

      I get your point when you are comparing standards between the PS and private industry, say. But, if the Government really wanted performance in the PS, rather than just talk about it, they would ensure that the bad practices your link points to were removed. But they patently aren't. So, what does that tell you? It tells me the Government only wants, or settles for, a mediocre PS. As long as the basic bookwork gets done, the programs are administered and it acts as a bulwark for the Government against the wider world, the Govt is probably happy. So, in the case of the PS, I would modify my original wording and say that the PS gets staff in the positions that gives the Government the best outcome for the times from its point of view, bearing in mind that the PS is accountable to the whole country and therefore has to operate much differently to the private sector. But, I'm not pretending that there are no unfairnesses in the way the PS operates. In fact, I've seen plenty of things it's done badly and wrong.

      Commenter
      RobP
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 11:07AM
  • As long as they are offered the same opportunities then what is the problem. Get the best person for the job in be them male of female. Having a 50/50 split does not mean equality it in fact would be exactly the opposite to equality as you would have people being hired purely on their sex rather than ability to meet the 50/50 target.

    Commenter
    Milo11
    Location
    ACT
    Date and time
    July 24, 2013, 2:54PM
    • Well, people are there due to their connections and mates, is that any better?

      "Bully broads" is the American term for women who bully their way to the top, especially bullying down competent women, and thus emulating men's bullying of women.

      The public sector has become a basket case because people with little ability or acumen want the money and status are able to pull down anyone better to get what they want.

      The Dunning Kruger effect describes the public sector culture to a tee (from Wikipedia):

      "The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]

      Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others".[2]"

      Commenter
      D-K effect
      Date and time
      July 25, 2013, 7:11AM

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