Progressing gender equality in the Australian Public Service

12.02.20

A research team led by UNSW Canberra Senior Lecturer Dr Sue Williamson has examined how a movement to bring private sector principles into the public sector may affect gender equality in the APS.

Published by Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the research is aimed at assisting organisations that are developing and implementing gender equality policies.

“The APS has shown a strong commitment to progressing gender equality, and many departments are committed to becoming an employer of choice for women, which is fantastic,” Dr Williamson said.

“A range of barriers remain, however, as our previous research has shown.”

Dr Williamson said women still predominantly undertake caring responsibilities and are more likely to work part-time. Research has shown that part-time employees are less likely to be assigned the important tasks which lead to career development and promotions.

She said occupational segregation still exists in all public sectors and encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas would help to break down these silos.

“The APS is undergoing culture change to progress gender equality, with all departments implementing their gender equality plans,” Dr Williamson said.

“Changing cultures is slow, but it is happening. We can see this through departments implementing measures to counter unconscious gender bias, for example.”

Dr Williamson said adequate resourcing is needed to accompany culture change: managers and staff members may benefit from training on how to implement gender equality initiatives; teams need adequate resourcing to enable people to work flexibly; and managers need time to undertake job analysis and design to ensure women are able to access a range of jobs. 

She said a good model was an overarching strategy for the APS, with gender equality action plans developed and implemented by individual departments and agencies.

“Plans can then be tailored to organisations. Each organisation will have particular challenges in progressing gender equality, so a tailored approach is needed,” Dr Williamson said.

“While departments are committed to implementing their gender equality plans, the monitoring, measurement and evaluation measures in many of them are very vague, with no specific targets.

“Measuring the progress of gender equality is not an easy task, and requires detailed human resource metrics, as well as qualitative measurement. Undertaking such actions can be resource intensive, and in the fast-moving world of the public service, the follow up after the policies have been developed and implemented can seem to be of lesser importance.”

Most APS gender equality plans expired at the end of 2019, providing many agencies with an opportunity to review, assess and rewrite their plans.

“The current rounds of gender equality plans contain many good initiatives,” Dr Williamson said. 

“Some of them are exemplary - they are detailed, contain monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, adopt an intersectional approach, and engage everyone across the organisation. Others, however, not only contain vague KPIs, but also contain a range of stand-alone initiatives.”

Dr Williamson explained that research has shown that progress is made when initiatives to progress gender equality build on and reinforce each other.

“For example, an organisation might introduce some unconscious bias training,” she said.

“This training needs to become embedded to become effective, so participants could go back to their workplaces, and keep a diary of instances when they've noticed – and addressed – one of their unconscious biases.

“This can then form the basis of lessons which could be shared with other course participants. This approach is missing in many of the gender equality action plans.”

The research team behind Representations of New Public Management in Australian Public Service gender equality policies also included UNSW Canberra’s Dr Lisa Carson and University of Sydney’s Dr Meraiah Foley.

Dr Williamson is presenting these findings this week at the Association of Industrial Relations Academics in Australia and New Zealand conference being held in Queenstown, New Zealand. 

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