View from The Hill

View from The Hill

It’s not just family that holds us back, senior women bureaucrats say

Jane Halton is one of the few women at the top of the public service tree. AAP/Alan Porritt

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – well, yes, when it comes to how they see reasons why there are not more females in the Australian public service’s senior ranks.

A report released today on hurdles faced by senior women finds men think it’s all about their female colleagues having more family responsibilities. Most don’t see any other major barriers.

As one male senior bureaucrat puts it: “It’s obvious. Can I depend on a woman for 3 years when she’s likely to have a child?”

But women have more complex, nuanced views of the problems. They recognise the domestic factor but also point to their lack of confidence and self-belief; exclusion from networks; personal style differences and male stereotyping.

A senior woman says: “Authority has a masculine voice. So when we tell a narrative, we talk about feelings … Men talk in dot points. … The senior women I know talk in dot points. So personal style remains a barrier”.

An executive level man says: “Women apply for jobs they know they can do and men apply for jobs they think they can do”.

The research, Not yet 50/50: Barriers to the Progress of Senior Women in the Australian Public Service, was sponsored by the ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra and six government departments, and authored by Bill Burmester, Meredith Edwards, Mark Evans, Max Halupka and Deborah May.

It combines interviews, focus groups, and a quantitative survey and includes three departments where women are poorly represented (Defence, Infrastructure, Finance) and three where they are well represented (Human Services, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Families).

Only four federal department heads are women and women make up fewer than 40% of the senior public servants. Three of the four female secretaries lead departments where traditionally women have been well represented in senior position – Education, Health and Human Services. The other is Regional Australia.

Edwards said that it was concerning that senior men in departments where senior women were poorly represented only identified family-related barriers as preventing women’s progress, while most senior women in those same departments identified several factors. “This is a perception gap crying out for action”.

When public servants were asked what was critical to getting ahead, across departments three factors stood out: a reputation for responsiveness and delivering results, a champion or executive sponsor, and “cultural fit”.

But these played out differently depending on whether the department was “male-streamed” (having less than 40% senior women) or not.

“Reputation and high-profile work requires visibility and inclusion in networks which particularly favour men in such departments.

"And men were more likely to have executive sponsors than women, especially in male-streamed departments”.

The meaning of cultural fit was different, depending on whether a department was male-streamed.

“In the more male-streamed departments, the culture was described as being ‘driven’ and ‘outcomes focused’ which, in turn, requires a more masculine communications style and fitting in with that type of culture.

"Challenges to women in such departments included having to deal with ‘Boys clubs’, assumptions about women’s communications style and commitment and generally finding it difficult to fit into male-streamed areas, especially if the additional barriers of family responsibilities were present”.

In contrast, in departments with a lot of women at the higher levels, there was greater acceptance of a range of leadership styles.

The potential for male bias was reduced, which was likely to attract other women. Women helped motivate or sponsor other women and “normalised diversity in women’s communication and leadership styles.

"The culture was described quite differently: much more emphasis was on communication and networking skills, organisational cultural values of collaboration and collegiality and the importance of a focus on relationships. More support was also provided for family friendly work practices.

"Here the challenges for women were quite different including more assertive or more direct women not being perceived as ‘nice’ , However, as many women fitted the prevailing organisational culture as did men”.

Recommendations to get more women in the top public service ranks include targets, service-wide mentoring programs for women, establishing women’s networks across each department, over-representing women in existing development programs, and developing a culture of inclusive collaborative leaderships practices and educating on unconscious bias.

While noting that the APS has performed better than the private sector on gender equity the report concludes that “a fully effective APS that reflects its values will not be attained until there is ‘50/50’ men and women at senior levels.”

“Only when unconscious bias is eliminated can we say that the merit principle for appointment to senior positions applies and the evidence suggests that this will be an ongoing struggle”.

Calling for the support of the APS senior men, the report says that “the role for these men, if they are serious about pursuing an inclusive culture will be to ‘lean-in and listen’”.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.