Public service gender targets may not be having the outcomes expected by governments, according to a surprising new study.
In fact, there’s evidence that the introduction of leadership targets may be slowing down the ‘trickle down effect’ which would expect to see more women at lower organisational levels.
Australian governments across all levels have imposed gender targets of 50 per cent female representation in leadership positions.
But despite attempts to introduce targets, “The glass ceiling is as strong as ever and continues to block the progress of women to senior levels”, the research published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration this month says.
The paper looks at what happens after gender targets are announced, what’s going wrong when they don’t have the desired effect.
Trickle down effect
Lead researcher Jillian Gould, from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Workplace Excellence, says the current research follows an earlier study that found a decrease in the ‘trickle down effect’ after gender targets were introduced at an Australian public service agency.
“This surprised us because we thought the extra focus on gender representation at senior levels would support the trickle-down,” Dr Gould told Government News. “We were trying to understand why this happened.”
The ‘trickle down effect’ presumes that if there’s an increase in female representation at a particular level, it leads to an increase at the levels immediately below, which act as ‘executive feeder’ levels.
But Dr Gould’s research showed that while some public sector departments did have a trickle down effect in lower levels over an 11-year period, others didn’t.
Of 13 departments looked at, the majority – eight – had a negative trickle-down effect.
Role of CEO critical
Interviews with CEOs, executives and an HR manager across ten departments indicated a key factor in gender targets succeeding is the chief executive, and whether she or he supports actions to back the targets.
“Basically, in departments with a consistent trickle down effect, the CE ‘led loudly’, Dr Gould says.
“They made it clear that the gender target was important. They kept the gender target coupled with its implementation.”
Dr Gould says a lot of the problems have to do with public sector reform, which has seen a devolution of the HR function from large central agencies to individual departments.
Line managers may not have the HR skills required and they may not be motivated to support gender equality. There’s a lack of accountability for achieving gender parity.
Dr Jillian Gould
“Devolution of the HR function has meant that departments are now responsible for people management,” she says.
“Line managers may not have the HR skills required and they may not be motivated to support gender equality. There’s a lack of accountability for achieving gender parity.”
The action taken after a target is announced is critical to making it work, Dr Gould says. Otherwise, the policy becomes ‘decoupled’ from practice.
“If a policy is ignored, this is policy-practice decoupling. If a policy is implemented, but the implementation is ineffective, then this is means-ends decoupling,” she explains.
Champions and blockers
The success of gender targets can also be influenced by the presence of ‘champions’ and ‘blockers’, the paper found.
Champions drive change and challenge norms, while blockers are resistant to change. Blockers – described by one respondent as “crusty old men” – can be overt or subtle in their behaviour.
Behaviour might range from talking negatively about women in senior roles to ignoring or being slow to implement efforts to make change.
“Blockers operated throughout the public service,” the researchers report. “If a department had gender champions, blockers resisted their change efforts and reduced the champions’ impact.”
Chief Executives must be visible gender champions for targets to work, Dr Gould says.
“The role of the CE is to keep the gender target coupled with its implementation,” she said.
“Without visible CE support, these champions couldn’t get enough traction and the target decoupled.”
Making gender targets work
Dr Gould says it’s important that gender targets don’t get lost among other targets.
“Departments have limited resources, so a gender target mixed in amongst other targets can get lost,” she says.
There needs to be accountability for achieving the target, for example, requirements for gender parity written into a CE job description with metrics that need to be met, and that are considered as part of the CE’s performance review.
Just introducing a target and thinking that’s the end of the story is problematic.
Dr Jillian Gould
Top-down and bottom-up practices that reinforce and ride on the momentum of targets also need to be in place.
Top-down practices include initiatives that increase the likelihood women apply for, are considered for and are hired into senior roles. Bottom-up practices, like leadership training and mentoring, can to support women progressing from one level up to the next.
“A really important point is that just introducing a target and thinking that’s the end of the story is problematic,” Dr Gould says.
Targets alone not enough
Dr Gould says she isn’t suggesting that gender targets in themselves don’t work. Rather, the practices that support them need to be right.
“The target isn’t the issue,” she says. “It’s what is in place – or not in place – to support achieving the target.”
“There can be a perception that targets don’t work, but this is because the support isn’t there.”
Women represent 60 per cent of the federal public service workforce but hold less than half of the most senior roles.
At state level, women make up approximately two thirds of the NSW, SA and Queensland public service workforces, but hold only 41 per cent, 49 per cent, and 50 per cent of senior leadership roles respectively.