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Coming second in our G20 ranking, Australia has achieved 46.3% women among its top five civil service grades – and reached gender parity among its departmental leaders. Stephanie Foster, a deputy secretary in the prime minister’s office, explains how the country has made such progress

It’s difficult to imagine such a policy now, but prior to the lifting of the ‘marriage bar’ in 1966, women had to give up their jobs in the Australian Public Service (APS) once they married. Fifty years on, much has changed. The proportion of women in the senior civil service stands at 46.3% – putting Australia second in our G20 ranking – and half of its departmental leaders are female.

According to Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary, governance, at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), a “whole range of seemingly small systemic changes” – such as bringing in flexible work arrangements, and promoting gender balance on selection panels – have combined to make the APS a place where women are well-supported on their journeys to the very highest ranks.

Initiatives such as All Roles Flex, based on the premise that any job in the APS can be done flexibly – either through job share, part-time hours or working remotely – are important. But Foster highlights the importance of “strong, visible, vocal leadership” to making progress, giving as examples the Treasury, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Geoscience Australia.

Agency actions

The Treasury embarked on a project in 2011, analysing data on the recruitment, retention and progression of women in the department and conducting consultations with women to examine the challenges they faced. This revealed that elements of the Treasury’s culture impeded women’s careers, and highlighted in-built biases in the operation of the department’s performance management system.

On the back of the project, the Treasury launched its Progressing Women Initiative (PWi), with actions including the creation of an executive-led Inclusive Workplace Committee; a renewed focus on workplace policies, such as promoting flexible work and becoming an accredited breastfeeding-friendly workplace; formal mentoring; a leadership seminar series; refreshing the performance management framework; and mandatory unconscious bias awareness training.

Together with other corporate strategies championing diversity and inclusion, this helped the Treasury reach equal gender representation across the department some years ago. Female representation in senior leadership roles currently sits at 39.5%, and it is on track to meet the 40% outlined in the Treasury Gender Equality Action Plan 2016-20.

At the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where many of the senior ambassadorial roles have traditionally been filled by men, a dedicated team was set up to drive implementation of a comprehensive women in leadership strategy. This, along with what Foster describes as a “no stone left unturned approach”, has led to significant positive changes around the recruitment and progression of women. Now, women serve as ambassadors in 40% of ‘career-appointed’ positions overseas – up from 27% in 2015 – and in over 40% of senior executive positions across domestic and overseas roles.

And at Geoscience Australia, then-CEO Dr Chris Pigram undertook a ‘cultural audit’ to examine the organisation’s gender imbalance in 2013. He began work to address it and his successor, Dr James Johnson, has developed his work. Last year, the agency launched its Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2019-22; developed a leave policy that includes support for those experiencing domestic violence; and reviewed and updated all human resources policies to ensure they are gender-inclusive. Geoscience Australia has become a member of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Programme and was awarded SAGE Bronze Accreditation in July 2020, recognising its efforts to improve gender equity and diversity.

No excuses

“What’s core to all of this is leadership,” Foster says. “It’s persistence; it’s recognising when things aren’t working and taking a different tack; and it’s using evidence and data to take away the capacity for people to say ‘It’s too hard’ or ‘Women aren’t progressing because they don’t aspire to reach the top posts’. They’re just excuses.”

More broadly, Foster credits the APS Gender Equality Strategy 2016-19 – which set out departmental targets and a reporting system – with helping to drive change across government. A new strategy is under development to maintain momentum.

How important is reaching gender parity for the APS? “There’s just so much research now that overwhelmingly shows that organisations with a good gender balance are more effective; it’s rare to hear people dispute that any more,” says Foster. “And I think it’s particularly important in the civil service, because we should be an exemplary employer. When we reached gender parity at the most senior level, it was a fabulous message to send out to the rest of Australia – to show that it is possible to do and to do in a way which is completely transparent and merit-based, because we are governed by those principles.”

No table thumping, no aggression

In terms of Foster’s own experience as a woman in the civil service, she recalls walking into her first senior meeting in a new job in a line agency and being “astonished” by the behaviour of her colleagues.

“I’d spent 23 years working in defence before it had undergone the transformation it has over the last decade,” she explains. “It was an extraordinarily macho culture and I’d have to gird my loins whenever I walked into a meeting. What struck me when I moved to this new agency was that there was no table thumping, no aggression and no putting people down: the organisational performance was through the roof because we weren’t wasting time on all that rubbish. It was a gender-balanced organisation, and that was the culture that came as a result.”

She says that while – like many women her age – she could “tell horror stories” about things that have happened to her in life, there was “no point at which I felt like my career or my opportunities were being held back or impacted as a result of being a woman”.

She acknowledges, however, that this was – at least in part – down to her seniority. “I have to remind myself all the time that I’m not just being given a fair go because we’ve got the gender thing sorted; I’m getting a fair go because I’m in a powerful position. And of course, my experience is not the experience of every woman, particularly those at more junior levels. It’s really important that we create an ‘I can do anything’ environment for all women.”

Still more to do

Much has been done in the APS and there is still more to do, particularly on the wider diversity piece. But on gender equality at least, things appear to be moving on at pace. In September last year, the recently-retired secretary of PM&C and head of the civil service, Martin Parkinson, told Global Government Forum: “It’s fantastic that we were able to get to nine secretaries, but it doesn’t mean we’ve broken the problem. We’ve never had a woman head of an intelligence agency; we’ve never had a woman running the Treasury; and we haven’t had a woman running the central bank. The job’s not done, but we’re in a better position than we were.”

Since then, Rachel Noble has been appointed secretary at intelligence agency the Australian Signals Directorate, and, with three of the Treasury’s four deputy secretaries women – and given the organisation’s tradition for recruiting from within – it seems likely a woman could soon be running the Treasury too.

“It’s not just about the proportion of women at those senior levels now, but about the quality,” Foster says. “It’s exceptional. And so there are a number of women who will be competitive for the top roles in the foreseeable future.”

Looking ahead, says Foster, the potential danger is that the gender split becomes weighted more towards women than men. “We’re watching the gender balance carefully in reverse,” she says. “There are pockets of feminised organisations; we need to make sure that we are doing our best to maintain a healthy gender balance in both directions.”

And then there’s the APS reform agenda – the specifics of which are currently being drawn up – to consider.

“Broadly speaking, the reform agenda is about building a more citizen-centric, flexible, adaptive public service, and I think those things play very well into a gender-balanced organisation,” Foster says. “What are commonly called enterprise skills – the ability to collaborate, for example, which women tend to be particularly good at – will become increasingly important in the kind of public service the reform agenda describes.”  

Stephanie Foster
Stephanie Foster