Opinion A piecemeal approach to gender equality in the APS

One of the most effective ways to improve gender equality is to address issues systemically rather than relying on individual managers, writes Sue Williamson.

HR

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OPINION: Gender equality is currently a hot topic in Canberra, partly due to the Australian government's stated commitment to removing barriers that may be impeding women's progress in the Australian public service. Views on how best to achieve this, however, differ.

My research on gender equality in the APS has revealed that agencies are undertaking a range of initiatives to progress gender equality. Some of these initiatives are small yet significant, such as arranging workplace morning teas for mothers on maternity leave; others focus on where and how work is conducted, and encourage employees to telework; yet other initiatives aim to change behaviour by uncovering and removing an individual's hidden biases which can, for example, affect recruitment and selection outcomes.

While all these initiatives are important and share the underlying goal of increasing gender equality in the APS, leading international research has shown that one of the most effective ways to improve gender equality is to address issues systemically, rather than solely relying on approaches that focus on individual employees and/or managers.

So how can workplace culture change so that progressing gender equality is not merely another management exercise aimed at employees, but becomes embedded into the fabric of an organisation? There are various ways in which this can be achieved.

Firstly, a whole-of-government approach is needed. Agencies that have embarked on a gender equality journey are to be applauded and may even eventually be formally recognised as being an employer of choice for women. Now they need to share stories, learn from each other, and implement the government's APS-wide strategy.

In April this year, Senator Michaelia Cash, Minister for Employment, Minister for Women and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service released Blueprint for the Future: The APS Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2019. This strategy aims to adopt such an approach, with agencies tailoring initiatives to their needs. Implementation needs to be regularly reviewed over an extended period of time to assess progress towards a gender equitable culture, as my research will do.

Secondly, institutional change and support is needed. Rather than a focus only on individuals, governance measures need to centre on holding agencies accountable to implementing the Gender Equality Strategy, to measuring outcomes and to ensuring agencies are adequately resourced to implement initiatives.

Thirdly, human resource professionals in agencies need to identify and analyse the differential impact of human resource policies and practices on both men and women. Where negative impacts are identified on either group of workers, policies and practices may need to be changed accordingly.

Fourthly, the complex intersections between the workplace and home need to be more effectively reflected in the social policy, economic and industrial relations spheres. Without measures such as adequate and affordable childcare and effective marginal tax rates that do not penalise mothers returning to work, gender equality in the home and the workplace will not be achieved.

A national conversation about innovative labour law provisions is also needed to help drive change in the APS and workplaces more broadly. Such initiatives include: organisations establishing a bank of carer's leave, to be used by employees as they need it throughout the various life stages, or a system of shared parental leave that encourages men to become primary carers for a time, as is being implemented by freight company Aurizon.

Gender equality provisions have also been advanced and implemented through collective bargaining. An end to the bargaining impasse is needed to restore certainty about entitlements.

The individual efforts of agencies, consultants, unions and employees to progress gender equality is welcome. There is, however, a danger that without systemic change, we'll still be having a conversation that started with the introduction of paid maternity leave for APS employees in the early 1970s, for another 40 years.

Dr Sue Williamson is a senior lecturer in human resource management at UNSW Canberra. 

This opinion piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.