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New Zealand

In the top three tiers of its civil service, New Zealand is only 0.4 percentage points off gender parity. State services commissioner Peter Hughes explains how a joined-up, system-wide approach and strong collaboration between agencies, employees and unions has driven success.

New Zealand has a strong history of commitment to women’s rights. It was the first country in the world to give women the vote in 1893; the current prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is the third woman to have held the role; and women currently occupy some of the country’s highest offices, including that of governor general and chief justice.

“New Zealand has a history of brave women who have pushed for social change. I think New Zealanders’ natural sense of fairness has probably had a role to play,” says the country’s state services commissioner, Peter Hughes.

This societal characteristic is reflected in the New Zealand public service, where women account for 49.6% of its top three tiers.

“I’m very proud of what New Zealand has achieved in terms of women’s representation in leadership,” Hughes says. “There has been a steady increase since in 2001 when we started monitoring these statistics and women held 32.7% of these positions. I think this shows a sustained commitment and effort.

“I have a personal commitment to increasing the proportion of women holding chief executive positions: 50% of the current 36 chief executives are women – up from 37% in 2016 – and women are now leading five of our six largest agencies.”

To achieve these results, he explains, New Zealand has adopted a joined-up, system-wide approach with a strong focus on collaboration between agencies, employees and unions. “We think we’re more likely to achieve sustainable change if we work together toward a common goal,” Hughes says.

Gender pay gap

While New Zealand is a hair’s breadth from reaching gender parity in the senior levels of the civil service, a gender pay gap still exists. And the measures put in place to close this gap neatly illustrate the civil service’s collaborative approach.

A set of Gender Pay Principles have been agreed between state sector leaders and unions, and the government, unions and all chief executives have collectively committed to delivering on a Gender Pay Gap Action Plan. This includes targets to address unconscious bias in policies and practices; introduce flexible work by default in all agencies; and ensure gender isn’t a factor in starting salaries or salaries for the same or similar positions.

Hughes adds that the government is “committed to recognising the true value of the work done by women in traditionally female-dominated occupations”, and has reached two Pay Equity settlements, resulting in increased pay for some public servants.

“New Zealand has a history of brave women who have pushed for social change” Peter Hughes

There is a focus on transparency in all this. The public service has been publishing gender pay and representation data for many years, and in 2020 all agencies will be publishing Gender Pay Gap Action Plans.

“We are seeing this effort starting to pay off: the public service gender pay gap fell by 1.7% last year to its lowest level [10.5%] since 2000, when we started publishing this statistic. It’s the largest annual decrease in 17 years,” Hughes says. “Now we have to keep the momentum going.”

The public service recognises that Māori women, Pacific women and women from other ethnic groups face the compounding impacts of gender and ethnic bias, and the next step is to address that. An ethnic pay gap action plan, interconnected with the public service’s wider gender pay gap work, is currently in development, with the aim of developing a more diverse pipeline of women leaders.

Creating supportive women’s networks

Alongside this focus on pay equality, progress is being driven by Papa Pounamu: a steering group comprising chief executives, who lead the diversity and inclusion programme with the support of cross-government and agency-specific women’s support networks.

Naomi Ferguson is the co-lead of Papa Pounamu, sponsor of New Zealand’s Government Women’s Network, and commissioner and chief executive of Inland Revenue. It’s vital, she says, that leaders are visible, interested and conscious of the issues, and have open conversations with women about their needs and the challenges they face. “It’s about asking the women in your organisation what’s working; what could be done differently; whether their ambition is to progress to a more senior role; what can be done to support their development; and about the barriers they face.”

Like Australia and the UK, New Zealand began its gender equality journey by focusing on women in leadership, and it remains an important part of the mix. Public service leaders are responsible for identifying and promoting talent, and have been working to recognise the barriers that exist and addressing them. Visible leadership and mentoring programmes are key, says Ferguson.

“For me, mentoring – from men as well as from women – has been one of the most useful parts of my career development,” she says. “Knowing there was someone more senior guiding me to think about where I needed to be was hugely helpful. We as chief executives recognise that and so we’re focused on helping our people: our upcoming leaders.”

Peer-to-peer networking also plays a role. The Government Women’s Network (GWN) was established five years ago, and is employee-led. “We let them run it and stay out of the way,” Ferguson says. “But we’re always there in the background, as leaders, supporting the mechanism and allowing our people to participate.”

Like the in-agency networks, the GWN publishes documents and holds events throughout the year – including development workshops, talks by prominent women in both the public and private sectors, and even ‘speed-date’ mentoring. “A lot of it’s about giving our women a place to talk, to be confident, to hear each other’s stories, to ask questions, and to be able to speak up,” Ferguson says. “They give and receive support and access insights from across the network, which helps to open up career pathways.”

Agencies are also given the opportunity to promote their successes, with the aim of encouraging others to follow suit. Ferguson gives the example of the Government Secure Communications Bureau, which runs an internship for female undergraduates in STEM sciences in a bid to attract more female graduates. “That’s an example where an agency’s really focused on what it needs to do in its own context, and it’s been really successful. Other agencies can learn from that. If it’s appropriate, they can pick it up, tailor it, switch it around and take it forward.”

Diversity and inclusion

Alongside the civil service’s work on gender, leaders are also addressing discrimination around age, ‘rainbow’ (LGBTQ+) and disability. And they’re using data to understand both the bigger picture and small contributory factors.

One recent ‘stocktake’ required agencies to report on the actions they’ve taken to support rainbow staff, Ferguson recalls: “We’ve all contributed, and now I’m going to share the insights with all of the agencies so we can learn from each other and think about where to go next. That’s been led by a cross-agency rainbow network that has been helping to unearth the really good things agencies are doing, so that we can all emulate them.”

No longer a need to talk about it

For Ferguson, true success in gender equality – and diversity in general – will have arrived when “it’s so normal that we don’t need to talk about it. We’re getting there, but we need to do more: to get more women into IT jobs and more men into social sector roles, for example. It’s important to remember that gender balance is a two-way thing.”

Hughes too acknowledges that there is more to do; and it’s important, he says, to do it now rather than “sit around and admire the problem”.

“Complex social problems don’t lend themselves to simple solutions, but I think we can sometimes get lost in the complexity and lose precious time. So rather than wait for perfect solutions, we are committed to doing what we can now,” he says. “We don’t know if our approach will have the impact we hope – but we are acting based on the best evidence we have available, and we can monitor, modify and improve as we go.”

As state services commissioner, he is determined to address workplace barriers so that all public servants – women, Māori, other ethnic and religious groups, disabled public servants and members of rainbow communities – “can be confident their value to the public service is appropriately recognised. Getting our own house in order helps show the way for other employers in New Zealand.”

Peter Hughes
Naomi Ferguson
Naomi Ferguson