Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: Australia

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 05/09/2017
The Women leaders Index examines gender equality in Australia's senior civil service

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet has recently finished a trial of an HR programme called ‘All Roles Flex’. It is now being evaluated, and if results are positive it will be rolled out throughout the department. The department’s secretary, Dr Martin Parkinson, first introduced the programme in the Treasury when he was Treasury Secretary, and now wants to bring it to his new post.

All Roles Flex starts from the premise that any job in the department can be done flexibly as a job share, part-time, or remotely using teleworking; whatever best suits the employee. And crucially, it shifts the onus onto the manager to put together a business case to say why a role can’t be done flexibly, instead of – as previously – the employee having to demonstrate that it can.

This is one move among several that the Australians have introduced in their senior civil service recently to drive up the numbers of women in their ranks. Parkinson explains: “While giving people greater access to flexible work isn’t necessarily gender-specific, as it turns out most people who end up working flexibly are women. So if you can make sure that working flexibly is not a career killer by removing any stigma or disadvantage, then that allows people to balance their work and their outside responsibilities and still advance their careers.”

Australia is currently second among the G20 nations for the proportion of women in its senior civil service, and made faster progress last year than any other country in the top six. It has been advancing much faster than first-placed Canada over the last four years and if this rate continues, looks likely to take the number one spot within a year or two.

With 45% female senior officials in 2013, Canada was always going to make slow progress; the country is inching towards parity with average growth of 0.5 points per year, and on current trends will achieve a 50/50 split in 2023. Australia entered 2013 eight points behind Canada, but its average 2.1 point annual growth has brought it to 43.3% – just three points behind. If it can retain this pace, it will hit parity in 2019 or 2020.

Despite this progress, Dr Parkinson says the view within the Australian Public Service (APS) is that “we haven’t moved as fast as we would have liked”. So there has been a renewed effort recently across the organisation to advance the cause.

One manifestation of this is an APS-wide Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2019. All departments were due to publish on their websites their plans for implementing this strategy by the end of April 2017.

“The way it’s been set up is that each department had to set ambitious stretch targets for their own situation,” Parkinson explains. “We don’t require every department to get to 50/50, because if you are starting at 10% now you’re not going to get to 50% in three years’ time. So what we’ve done is ask people to lay out stretch targets across all our business areas for the period out to 2019 and report against them, to show that you are making progress.

“The ultimate objective is to get to 50/50 while also recognising that in a number of areas you won’t necessarily – and in some areas you might already have 65% women, so you wouldn’t be saying that you want to increase numbers there; you will probably be saying how do we get greater cultural diversity.”

Australia has also set a target of getting equal numbers of men and women onto its government boards, which include policy advisory boards, Government Business Enterprises, and review and inquiry boards. Again, says Parkinson, the strategy recognises that certain boards in traditionally male-dominated industries or sectors might find it hard to achieve parity; so the aim is for 50/50 in aggregate, with each individual board required to have at least 40% women.

Alongside the creation two years ago of a database called Boardlinks – which holds details of leading women who might be suitable to join government boards – this target has had a big impact, Parkinson says. “A total of 41% of all positions on government boards are now held by women, and 32% of all chair and deputy chair roles. That’s a big increase from where we were.”

At the very highest level of the APS, six of the 18 secretaries are currently female. Parkinson is hoping that the new gender equality strategy will help to shift the dial on this, but he is quick to point out that increasing cultural diversity is even more of a challenge. “We’ve been replacing middle-class white men with middle-class white women, so the challenge for us, in a society where almost 50% of our population has at least one parent born outside Australia, is to look more like Australian society.”

To that end, he has also set up a Secretaries Equality and Diversity Council which comprises all 18 secretaries, and is responsible for ensuring implementation of not just the Gender Equality Strategy, but also the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy and the APS Disability Employment Strategy.


Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, MexicoTurkey and the UK.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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