‘Stop trying to fix women — fix the system’

The reasons for women’s under-representation in many senior roles across society is frequently debated, with some emphasising systemic barriers to advancement, while others argue it’s about the choices made by individuals.

After reviewing international research and speaking to stakeholders close to the ground, the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia came to some “very clear and very consistent” conclusions.

“We need to move beyond the focus on fixing women, and their possible skill deficits, and their possible lack of confidence, because the challenge is actually to fix the system, to fix the systemic barriers that still exist to women’s progression, particularly in very senior roles,” said Dr Emily Phillips, deputy secretary at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, at the final lunch for Public Sector Week on Friday.

To put its money where its mouth is, on Friday IPAA Victoria launched a new framework for advancing women in the Victorian public sector. As a professional association for public servants, IPAA naturally tends to shy away from advocacy, making this decision significant.

“It’s still the case that the further up you go the leadership ladder, the fewer women there are,” argued Phillips, who is also an IPAA Victoria board member.

“This challenge is often described as the leaky pipeline. In essence, we have plenty of talented and skilled women in middle management and early level executive positions, but we lose them. We lose them through the promotion pipeline through to our executive bands.

“If you think about leadership capacity and talents as a resource our sector needs to utilise, and utilise as well as it possibly can, then we risk wasting those resources if we continue to allow the talent pipeline to leak. There’s also a more fundamental aspect to this, around equity and fairness — and around equality of opportunity and access for women. That’s really the nub of the issue.

“We all benefit if achievement is based on leadership capacity and talent, because the best person gets the job, and we get the very best possible senior executive leadership in the public service. And as public servants we should all want that.”

While there are more women now in executive roles in the VPS following the announcement last year of a state government target, the gains have largely been in the lowest executive ranking, Phillips noted.

It’s a similar story in the Australian Public Service, said Department of Education and Training secretary Gill Callister.

“At the senior commonwealth levels, SES 1, 2 and 3, the positions still skew significantly towards men. In the APS 1 and 2 positions, progress has essentially flatlined. In the case of SES 3 positions, the top level positions in the APS, the trend last was going in the wrong direction,” she said.

Only 16% of local government CEOs are women.

“You can’t bank progress or take it for granted. It’s incumbent on us as leaders to crystallise a genuine sense of urgency for gender equality. It’s also incumbent upon us as the professional association for our sector to treat this as a significant priority and build on the work that we’ve been doing.”

Chris Eccles, secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, also spoke about the value of diversity, noting that Victoria was a particularly successful case.

“This spectrum of diversity in Victoria is a source of strength for our community. We’re stronger socially, culturally and economically in our differences. Victoria’s cohesive society is built not only on the on the principle that every person has the right to live without discrimination due to their identity, experiences or ability, but on the notion that people are included and have equal access to services, programs and opportunities,” he said.

“Diversity fosters unique skills, ideas and knowledge. We also know that diversity fuels innovation, creativity and development in our economy and society. Inclusive communities are more stable, innovative and have stronger participation.”

The framework

IPAA has been mulling over what role it can play, and hopes its framework can work alongside existing initiatives, as well as being taken up by other organisations.

It will be used to guide IPAA’s own planning, and will include a measurement and evaluation of outcomes across the VPS. A suite of indicators and targets are in development.

There are four key areas it will tackle, Phillips explained.

“First, we need to continue to build the leadership capacity of women across the Victorian public sector,” she said, noting that IPAA is well placed to do this as an organisation that already delivers a lot of professional development.

“Second, we need to keep creating opportunities for women to connect and network to share ideas, to access information and to influence decision making. IPAA Victoria has had a huge response to some of our big networking events, in particular our International Women’s Day event, where we now get over 1000 men and women together. And this will continue, but we also think we can complement this with some smaller, more focused networking events. … You’ll start to see these types of events over the next 12 months.

“Third, we want to develop and support women who are already holding leadership roles in the VPS. We think this is crucial because we can’t afford to lose them. We are still exploring how to do this,” Phillips said.

“Fourth, we think there’s a role for IPAA in speaking out and advocating about systemic barriers to women’s advancement in the public sector. For example, IPAA is in a great position to help tackle some of the negative stereotypes that still exist about women in leadership.

“We can also focus on some of the very practical issues, like flexible work, like leave arrangements … part of our role is to ensure that our whole sector knows what’s going on, knows who’s doing this well, and knows where to find the information to adopt some of these practices.”

A key message, Phillips added,  is that “this is not just a focus on women”.

“I really want to stress that our intention is to involve both men and women. We all need to recognise there’s a fundamental fairness issue here, and that tackling these problems is going to require all of us as public sector leaders to champion change and to do things differently. Because it benefits all of the public sector to have the best possible talent in senior roles, and greater flexibility and leave arrangements and part time senior roles can benefit men as much as women.”

This article originally published in The Mandarin. 

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.