Could gender targets for senior roles go beyond 50 per cent at the Department of Human Services?

Could gender targets for senior roles go beyond 50 per cent at the Department of Human Services?

Is 50 per cent men and women in leadership true equality? That's one of the many questions Department of Human Services secretary Renee Leon grapples with when addressing the roles of women in the workforce at the biggest Commonwealth public service department. About 70 per cent of the 34,000 DHS employees are women, well above the rate across the public service, where women make up almost 60 per cent of employees.

The department is nudging its target of 50 per cent of senior executive service roles to be filled by women by the end of 2019, with 46 per cent of roles currently filled by females. But according to Ms Leon, that doesn't mean the work is finished when it comes to equality for women in the department.

Department of Human Services Secretary Renee Leon has spoken about challenges for women in the public service on International Women's Day.

Department of Human Services Secretary Renee Leon has spoken about challenges for women in the public service on International Women's Day.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

"We don't have as high a representation of women, however, in our leadership ranks, so the further up you go unfortunately the more the numbers of women drop off. That said, we are at about 46 per cent so far, in our SES, which is good," Ms Leon said.

"It's not representative of the number of women in the whole department but nevertheless it's still in the right direction."

While most calls for equality centre on reaching 50 per cent women in senior roles, that might not be enough for Human Services, with Ms Leon saying "we can do more" when it comes to identifying barriers for women to progress in the workplace, even though there are already many strategies in place.


"Although we've nearly reached our 50 per cent target I anticipate that we'll review that as well to see whether we ought to consider a higher target. Given the number of women in the department and the view that if you've got a majority of women in the organisation then maybe you're not actually giving them equal opportunity if you then start to filter them out at the higher levels," Ms Leon said.

In the most recent State of the Service report, there are more women than men graduates and in APS levels one through six, and executive level one, but at executive level two and SES levels the balance swings towards men.

Speaking on International Women's Day, both on her personal experience as a woman in the public service and the challenges faced for gender equality across the APS, Ms Leon said that efforts to correct the balance were similar to those used by men for many years.

"I've always been connected with, and collegiate with, other women interested in gender equality in the workplace and I think we do all support each other and look after each other. I think it's worth recognising that men have been supporting and looking after each other in this way for decades and most of us who are women have never known about it because we weren't on the receiving end," she said.

Ms Leon started her public service career in the Attorney-General's Department after completing a law degree at the Australian National University. Before being appointed secretary at DHS in September last year, she was secretary at the Department of Employment for four years. Although the public service is generally seen as having made more progress on gender equality than in the private sector, Ms Leon can recount instances of being spoken over in meetings or enduring sexist or sexualised comments in the workplace.

Ms Leon has been part of groups that look at barriers to women succeeding in the workplace, and although women have taken strides as far as balancing work and having a family, one of the next hurdles for the department is making sure such opportunities go the other way.

"I'd really like to move the dial a bit for men taking more of the flexible working arrangements," Ms Leon said.

Just 13 per cent of employees at DHS who work part time or use flexible working arrangements are men, and Ms Leon said there were ways to increase that number without using targets.

"What we did in the Department of Employment is just start to publicise more, men who do work flexibly and to train managers to be just as open to having that conversation with a man whose wife is expecting a baby as they normally have with the woman worker who is expecting a baby," she said.

Asked what the next step was for gender equality in the public service, Ms Leon said her long term wish was for the debate not to be needed.

"I'd like to get to the point where gender really doesn't matter in a public service career, where women and men are both judged really on their merits rather than on a gendered view of merit as I think happens even now," she said.

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.

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