Government managers under-resourced on gender gap

Public sector middle managers are committed to tackling gender inequality but fundamentally lack the resources to achieve it, new research has revealed.

The research, which drew on the experience of nearly 300 managers across the NSW, Queensland, South Australian and Tasmanian public sector found that while agencies have driven gender-inclusive practices, middle managers are under resourced to implement best-practice initiatives.

On average, women make up around two-thirds of public sector employees but less than half of senior leadership positions across the four jurisdictions, the research found.

While the majority of middle managers are committed to enabling flexible work practices and most agencies have examples of innovative practice to progress gender equity, the report found a “gap between expectations and the lived experience of women in public sector workplaces.”

UNSW Canberra senior lecturer Dr Sue Williamson told Government News that despite widespread commitment in the public sector to promoting gender equality, many managers are undermined by a lack of resources and time.

“We found there’s a really high commitment to progressing gender equity and in the jurisdictions most have a gender equity plan they’re busy implementing. But in terms of the plan we found there needs to be more discussion; middle managers don’t know how to talk about it with their staff,” she said.

“Most have good working knowledge of gender equity but don’t have the time to sit down and do additional research or think about how gender equity fits in with their plan.”

How managers can promote gender equity

Conversations around gender equality need to progress in the public sector to combat gender inequity so that they occur formally and “on a more structured level,” Dr Williamson said.

“Managers also wanted senior management to instigate conversations more generally, at branch or division meetings or large workplace meetings as an agenda item. There needs to be ongoing conversations right from the top and they need to be very structured,” she said.

Dr Williamson also noted that KPIs need to be less aspirational and more targeted and long-term.

“One agency we spoke with said it has a dashboard of gender equality indicators it updates monthly, sends out to all staff and has on the HR intranet, broken down by group level. They can see where pockets of operational segregation are, track each month and identify where improvement might be needed. It’s really good because staff can see that.”

The findings prompted the development of a Leading Practice Guide that outlines strategies to increase managers’ ability to promote gender equality in the workplace.

Watch Dr Williamson discuss ways to encourage workplace gender equity: 

“They day” in Victoria

Meanwhile a Victorian government department last week announced it will be promoting “they day” on the first Wednesday of every month to encourage the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

The campaign, run by staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, is aimed at highlighting the use of pronouns such as “they” to promote gender neutrality and inclusion.

Dr Williamson said that campaigns such as “they day”, which promote inclusion from the bottom up, have some degree of effectiveness.

“Previous research we’ve done indicates that employee networks are a really effective way of progressing gender equity not just for men and women but other target groups,” she said.

The sole use of such campaigns as a means of promoting equality however runs the risk of stifling actual change, she warned.

“Anything that could raise awareness is a really good thing but there’s also a danger that when there’s too many days like that they can lose effectiveness and be a form of window dressing.”

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