"Not yet 50/50"

"Not yet 50/50”: Barriers to the Progress of Senior Women in the Australian Public Service 

This research project was funded by six Australian Commonwealth departments in 2013 as part of a broader project that was launched by ANZSIG in 2010 on ‘Celebrating the Contribution of Women to Public Sector Excellence’. Members of the Institute were concerned that data on the representation of women in the ‘most’ senior echelons of the public service in Australia showed a decline despite the election of Australia’s first woman prime minister. We therefore decided to investigate why.

In most countries around the world women remain in the minority when it comes to senior positions in both the public and private sectors. That there are barriers to their progression is not in doubt. What is not well understood is the nature of those barriers and the extent to which they are consciously or unconsciously constructed. Moreover, there has been a stark absence of empirical studies in the field of Australian public administration to investigate these issues and assess the implications.

The purpose of this research was to help bridge the gap. It did this through a study of the perceptions of senior men and women of the cultural and systemic barriers affecting the recruitment, retention and promotion of senior women in six Australian Commonwealth departments.

The core policy insight from our research findings is unsurprising – the quest for gender equality in the workplace (indeed any form of equality) is an ongoing struggle which should not stop with the achievement of a performance target. Our four core empirical findings underscore this observation: (1) competing priorities/family responsibilities hinder women from taking up demanding leadership roles; (2) negative male perceptions of a woman’s ability to lead impede women’s progression into leadership roles; (3) workplace structures and cultures hamper women’s progress by distilling processes of unconscious bias that afford comparative advantage to men with the requisite attributes; and, (4) workplace cultures and practices undermine the self-confidence and self-belief of women in seeking career advancement.

These findings lead us inexorably to the crucial question that if meritocracy is not a sufficientcriterion for affecting the advancement of women what interventions are necessary to redress the imbalance? The research therefore proposes a range of mitigating strategies for navigating these barriers and achieving and maintaining a better gender balance at the Senior Executive Service level across the Australian Public Service. These strategies are integrated within a systems model of behavioural change which we hope will prove useful to public organizations embarking on diversity reform initiatives.