Family, bias and the APS – Time for cultural reform

Apr 16
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Twenty-two years ago I left a high paid, high prestige and (at that time) financially secure job because inconveniently I became a single parent. I was simultaneously assumed to be less capable, reliable and committed than I had been when childless, and, given the paucity of women in senior roles, I figured that something was going on that was not just about me.

Armed with curiosity, optimism and a Fulbright Scholarship, I went to Boston to attend the only business school designed for women so I could better understand why organisations worked better for men than they did for me.

I came back in 1998 with enthusiasm, energy and some ideas about how to change minds, systems and cultures to make room for a few more women – especially at the top.

A decade behind the US

It was a harder gig than I’d expected. Australia was at least a decade behind the US; gender equity had slipped behind the former Labor government’s shadow and diversity was considered a collection of degrees from well qualified, white folk.

8% of ASX 200 executives were women, two CEOs were women, there was one woman APS Secretary and no one really appeared to care too much.

Well… 18 years on, the numbers of executive women in the ASX has barely budged, but we do have six women Secretaries. Enthusiasm is higher but APS workplace culture has changed little.

From the many cultural audits we’ve undertaken across the APS, (think of them as an organisational scan – which, much like an MRI, makes visible the invisible and identifies underlying causes of pain) it’s clear that unconscious bias is the most significant barrier to gender equity and, more broadly, diversity and inclusion.

Like the Canberra arboretum, where, despite the best intentions and ambition for a diverse plantation, the soil and conditions make it difficult for any non-native tree to thrive, the APS cultural norms continue to favour those ‘like us’, who are willing and able to conform to ‘how we do things around here.’

Those norms do not accommodate the diverse and divergent needs of a contemporary workforce – and we’re all the poorer as a result.

Family and caring responsibilities

The most consistent and pernicious example of this bias is towards women – and, increasingly, men – with family and caring responsibilities, even in agencies where more than 50% of the SES are women.

20% of the APS work part time (70% are women), but less than 3% of SES officers work part time! An extraordinary drop that speaks to the implicit (and often explicit) assessments of merit, potential and suitability. These assessmemts rely on unreasonable and inaccurate expectations of 24/7 availability, informed by outdated thinking, stereotypes and assumptions about commitment and reliability.

Additionally, APS organisational structures and systems do not support those with family responsibilities. There is limited creativity in job design and even though many people tell me that women working part time are often more productive than their full time colleagues, there is little done to harness this productive effort, or make it easy to sustain.

All of this is amplified by limited role modelling at the most senior levels and a lack of managerial capability.

Hardly surprising, then that many women (and, indeed, men) feel they need to choose between a family and their careers: ‘The type of job and the expectations of an SES role means I’m not interested.’

On the up side, however, there are good examples of people making it work. We hear of different levels of creativity in job design, examples of job sharing, some excellent managerial practices and some role models – it’s just that it’s ad hoc and relies on individuals to make it work.

APS-wide reform is required and needs to be led from the very top. The good news is that the Secretaries recognise it and seem geared to take it on.

Deborah May will be facilitating a workshop on ‘How to overcome barriers to reach your career goals’ at the Public Sector Women in Leadership conference this June. Book soon to secure your place!

Women in Leadership

Submitted by Deborah May

Deborah May

Deborah May is Managing Director, Principal Consultant of The May Group – a niche consulting practice that specialises in gender equity and inclusion.

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