Is the bureaucracy a gender equality utopia?

"Blokey government workplaces pay more than those with mostly female staff." I've heard this often in Canberra, and it seems to be widely believed. Is it true?

Well, it was true a decade ago. But it's not anymore. And if you go back further – say, 30 years – it wasn't true then, either. Somehow, the public service shifted from being an exemplar of pay equality to a pariah, and then back again.

In the early 1990s, paying women the same wage as men for the same work was more than an idea in the federal bureaucracy: it was standard practice, even if it was still just a goal in other industries. Public servants all worked under the same pay deal. If you were a certain level, you received the same salary regardless of your sex or which agency you worked in.

But Paul Keating began, and John Howard completed, the "disruption" of this system. In pursuit of flexibility, they encouraged government agencies to negotiate separate pay deals. Wages began to differ wildly from one workplace to another. Over time, women were the biggest losers.

It was a bad look. As recently as a decade ago, the Commonwealth – legally obliged to make merit-based employment decisions – was somehow paying most female bureaucrats less than the typical bloke in the same job. This was true for every level except APS4.

A parliamentary committee noticed the problem in 2008. When union leader Stephen Jones (now a Labor MP) was asked why it was happening, he said women were overwhelmingly employed in service delivery agencies, "where the work ... is undervalued". The idea was that departments with traditionally male-dominated workforces, such as the Treasury and Defence, had more clout in cabinet, received more funding and could pay staff more. Female-dominated portfolios, such as Social Services and Human Services, struggled. "You can see a political bias in the pay differentials," Jones said. "Obviously, it is not about productivity; it is about how government values work."

But this is a good news story. The problem was actually fixed, and quickly, though not everyone has yet realised it. Just last year, for example, Labor senator Jenny Mcallister repeated the belief (by then unfounded) "that 'female' departments paid less than 'male' departments for equivalent positions".

The graph at the top compares APS salaries with agency gender profiles. It tests the notion that Mcallister voiced: that blokey workplaces pay more. Every analysis we ran shows no statistically significant correlation between proportion of women in a workplace and minimum salary (nor maximum salary: we tested that, too).

So how was this pay discrimination undone?

It started about the time of that parliamentary inquiry, which recommended the Public Service Commission report regularly on the gender pay divide (it didn't previously). It also recommended that individual agencies include in their annual reports analysis of "gender, including pay-equity, issues". And they did. Gentle, regular pressure was applied in other ways, too – from the overarching (such as a gender equality strategy) to the more practical (such as training staff about bias, and simply making more data public).

Pay equity improved, but promotion decisions did, too. Half of departmental secretaries are now women, as are nine in every 20 senior executives. It's not a strict balance – after all, 59 per cent of public servants are women – but it's a wild success compared to the private sector, where only one in four chief executives are women.

Nonetheless, there's still an overall pay gap. The average female bureaucrat earns 8.4 per cent less than the average male. When asked why this was so, the Public Service Commission said in a statement: "Our analysis indicates that it is the greater numbers of women at lower classifications that have the most impact on the APS' gender pay gap. Whilst there are more men than women in senior APS roles, this has a much smaller impact on the overall gender pay gap."

In other words, it's not that there are too few female leaders, but rather that there are a lot of women in junior roles. "The reasons for this are complex, and vary between agencies, occupations and locations. These patterns reflect broader societal trends around the role of women as caregivers, and gender segregation by occupation and industry," the commission said.

So has the public service become a gender equality utopia? No one's prepared to say that yet. The commission says there is more work to do. Community and Public  Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood, meanwhile, says the pay gap remains "completely unacceptable".

"[We're] still talking about a shortfall of thousands of dollars a year for many women working in Commonwealth agencies ... Governments should be acting decisively to fix the reasons why women are still being paid less in 2018. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has instead spent five years suppressing wages and attacking working conditions in the APS, making life harder for women working in Commonwealth agencies."

It's true that a 8.4 per cent gap is not equal. But, with the nationwide gender pay gap at 21.4 per cent, every workplace should look at what the bureaucracy did and learn from it.

Perhaps the commission can now focus on that other great discrimination: why some public servants are paid tens of thousands of dollars more or less than APS colleagues in other agencies who, according to the commission's own work-level standards, are doing equivalent work.