The statistical evidence is compelling. Women are generally under-represented in senior positions in the APS and the most significant barrier to women’s progression is the manifestation of unconscious bias and the subsequent discriminatory practices and norms that disadvantage women in particular.
Over the past year I have conducted research for the ANZSOG Institute for Governance to determine the perceptions of senior men and women of the cultural and systemic barriers that affect the recruitment, retention and promotion of senior women. Six APS agencies agreed to be part of this study: The departments of Defence, Finance, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Human Services, Infrastructure and Transport and FaCHSIA.
The report of the findings was launched in Canberra on 25th July by ANZSOG Institute for Governance at a Parliamentary Triangle briefing. Download the report
TOP 10 BARRIERS:
1.Lack of confidence.
This was identified by women across all agencies in similar numbers at the EL and SES levels regardless of whether the agency was gender balanced or not.
Strikingly, more SES women than EL women identified this as a key barrier. It was described by men and women as women:
* Devaluing their skills and experiences;
* Not feeling capable or quite ready to apply for a promotion;
* Not knowing how to progress and balance a family;
* Not wanting to take a risk;
* Knowing they needed to talk themselves up and not wanting to or knowing how to.
The factors that contribute to lack of confidence were said to be:
* Feeling torn between families and career or penalised for having a family;
* Lacking feedback, encouragement or mentoring and / or not having enough role models to identify with;
* Receiving consistent messages that they don’t fit in;
* Missing out on challenging work or assignments (typically because of assumptions made about them or because women are less visible);
* Suffering criticism for how they present themselves or communicate.
Important: Lack of confidence is not a consequence of women ‘not being tough enough’ or ‘not up to it.’ It is a consequence of cultural and organisational practices and unconscious bias that results in women frequently feeling somehow not quite good enough, then underestimating their value or second guessing their choices/options.
2.Women’s commitment to family.
Most men thought this was the single reason women are under-represented in the SES and explained it as a consequence of women ‘prioritising’ their families over a career. For women however, the reasons they identified it as a barrier were varied. Women said that:
* The expectations and norms around being in the SES include 24/7 availability or responsiveness, which is incompatible with family life. This means many women choose to work at lower levels in roles that accommodate greater flexibility or are perceived to be less demanding. Unfortunately this also means that many women are under-utilised.
* Organisational structures and systems don’t support those with family responsibilities. Only 4% SES work part time. This is a consequence of agencies being structured in ways that limit opportunities for women (and men) who need flexibility. There is limited creativity in job design and even though many people told 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.
* Assumptions made about women with family responsibilities (or of child bearing age) mean they are not provided with challenging work or development opportunities and experiences. Fathers do not have the same judgements or assumptions made about them.
3.Career breaks: this was identified alongside family responsibilities, particularly by men and women working in male streamed agencies and despite the evidence. Women at the most senior levels in the APS are of similar ages to their male colleagues, many have children, have taken maternity leave in some instances up to 2 years and a significant number returned back to work part time.
4.Lack of visibility: Women identified this as a barrier whether they worked in male streamed agencies or in those that are more gender balanced. This reflects the implicit recognition that visibility is a pre-requisite for career progression and men are much more likely to be visible or find ways to make themselves visible.
5.Exclusion from informal networks: This is where there is a clear difference between women working in gender balanced agencies and those in male dominated agencies. What is significant and illuminating is that up to 60% of women in male streamed agencies identified this as a barrier, yet their male colleagues did not. Women reported they consistently miss out on valuable information, knowledge and opportunities provided to their male peers informally in those agencies where there are more men.
6.Personal style differences and male stereotyping: Particularly in male dominated agencies, authority has a ‘masculine voice’ and women rarely get it right. In agencies where there are more women, there is accommodation and acceptance of a broader range of styles.
7.Lack of mentoring: There aren’t enough senior women to be role models or mentors, there are few structured mentoring programs that work and blokes are more likely to seek and find mentors than women.
8.Inhospitable culture: This was clearly identified by women, and indeed, SES men, in male streamed agencies and is a reflection of all the above.
9.There are no barriers: Around 40% of EL men perceive there to be no barriers at all for women’s career progression.
Women at EL and SES levels identified 3 of the top barriers in almost equal numbers regardless of whether they worked for male streamed or more gender balanced agencies. This suggests that it is not sufficient to increase the numbers of women alone. There needs, in parallel to be the deliberate, intentional and explicit development of inclusive leadership practices, systems and norms that accommodates, accepts and indeed harnesses a range of different styles, and behaviours and reduces the reliance on organisational practices and norms that require people to not only be good at what they do but being good at positioning themselves and being seen as being good at what they do.
In order to really address the barriers, active, intentional leadership and cultural change is required to address unconscious bias and create an inclusive workplace culture.
View the launch, my presentation and the panel discussion with Secretary of Treasury, Martin Parkinson, Deputy Secretary of PM&C, Renee Leon, Deputy Secretary of Finance, Jan Mason and GM Corporate of Geosciences Australia, Tony Marks – facilitated by ABC journalist, Virginia Haussegger.