NSW councils underperforming on gender balance (and how to fix it)

NSW local government is performing well. In most areas. But it is lacking in its participation rate of females, particularly in management. This had potentially dangerous consequences for the future workforce capacity.

Every private and public sector organisation should be asking itself whether its workforce is fit for the future. Many leaders are formulating more cohesive approaches to make their workplaces fitter in a fast-changing, diverse and more informed society.

So where does local government broadly sit in this picture? Are we working hard enough to ensure we have the workforce depth and capacity to create the strongest possible future for our communities?

Local government is an industry with an unparalleled diversity in its service areas. To deliver the very best at all levels of local government we need a workforce that reflects what is happening more widely in society, and one that is attractive to the potential talent pool.

Unfortunately, the 2016 workforce data gathered in our Australasian Local Government Performance Excellence Program shows that  both gender and generational challenges need urgent attention in NSW.

There are risks in the imbalance of both gender and generational workforce profile when measured against a wider working population and other local government jurisdictions.

The low female workforce participation figures in NSW local government (40 percent, according to ABS figures from 2011)

The proportion of women working in NSW councils is just 40 percent, a figure that has not improved since we first started tracking it in in 2013. Compare this to two other jurisdictions we have measured: Western Australia is 49 percent and in New Zealand 58 percent.

The number is also in stark contrast to the current NSW overall public sector participation rate of 62 percent (Public Sector Commission Report 2017).

Few role models

There is also a generational issue impacting female participation. NSW has a unique older, male dominant workforce profile which contrasts significantly with the wider workforce in NSW. People are now generally working longer, and in 2016 the staff turnover rate in NSW councils was a very low 9.9 percent –  even with impending reform. WA and NZ turnovers were much higher, at 13.8 percent and 13.6 percent respectively.

While a low turnover offers stability, it also means slower changes in workforce demographics. This means that at the entry or mid-levels it can be discouraging for career minded younger people – especially young women.

It may limit their attraction to an industry that does not look like them, nor reflect their more familiar local working community. Based upon our data, you would only have one chance in 200 of seeing a female senior manager in NSW in 2016. There are few role models.


Navigating the Road Blocks to Higher Management

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2017 Scorecard released this month shows female leadership in Australian business has grown from 37.4 percent in 2016 to 38.4 percent in 2017. Our own survey results show the proportion of women in management level in NSW local government to be only 31 percent.

It is evident from our findings that women in NSW local government, when compared to other jurisdictions, are facing greater challenges transitioning from entry level positions through middle management to senior levels. Why?

It is partly due to a gender segregated workforce, which is common in Australia.  In local government, our data shows women dominate many of the community related services – aged care, children’s services, health, libraries, cultural and community services, while men dominate in non-community services – roads, waste, environment, regulations, water and transport.

The latter often attract significant investments, infrastructure and resources and have provided strong pathways towards senior council leadership.

Out 2016 report shows roads and maintenance is 92 percent men, while libraries is almost the reverse, with 83 percent women.

We should all challenge the thinking about the relative importance of local government roles when building talent development plans and management pipelines, and review the traditional value placed upon the various roles.

Career choice is just that – choice. But whether it’s managing roads, bridges, day care, recreation, planning development or corporate support areas the essential management competencies are the same.

In fact, despite the inevitable variation in the size of expenditure responsibilities, the more important element is the degree to which a management position is visible and accountable to the community, is open to and manages risk, and also delivers outcomes. It is not just the size of a budget.


Boosting the female talent pool

Attracting and retaining new talent at grass roots is also hampering the growth of the female talent pool. In 2016, female staff turnover in NSW local government was higher than with males – consistent with Western Australia but not New Zealand. And even more worrying, it was the new female staff who were leaving at a significantly higher rate again.

So it is time we need to be growing our middle and senior leaders from within – fostering broader workplace experiences, management skills development, and wider industry knowledge. Management should be seen as a set of capabilities – not specialist positions where some are elevated and others not.

We need also to change entrenched and self-inhibiting practices by both men and women that perpetuate limited outcomes and fuel the current status quo – where high level NSW council management is predominantly a man’s domain.

The sector is working positively planning infrastructure and services. But we are not moving fast enough as a sector to address gender or generational diversity of talent.

Specifically, we should be more proactive in attracting women to local government as a long term career choice and build up to senior management. Without this we may face real capacity shortfalls in the future.

Annalisa Haskell is CEO of Local Government Professionals Australia, NSW, the leading association representing all professionals in NSW local government. It is part of a national federation of associations. Annalisa is developer of the Australasian LG Performance Excellence Program, developed in collaboration with PwC.

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