‘Blokey’ department’s action plan for gender equity

A new deputy secretary at a “blokey” primary industries department has a plan to give women a fair go. He tells Women’s Agenda’s sister site, The Mandarin, that he won’t sugarcoat an imperfect situation, but the local tabloid missed the point entirely.

Employees of a Tasmanian department have come together on an “action plan” to shift the balance between men and women in their workforce, to be finalised in April and implemented over following months.

The draft plan proposes: reform of recruitment and promotion procedures; job flexibility for all positions; onsite childcare; female cadetships and scholarships; support for women returning from maternity leave; a new gender equality KPI for senior executives; and agency-wide gender equality principles.

Click to view the full draft

The final action plan is expected in April at the end of a two-month final consultation period on the draft, which is based on nine workshops, email feedback and one-on-one discussions between interested employees and the senior executive leading the process.

Deputy secretary Tim Baker — former chief of staff to cabinet minister Matthew Groom — looked over staff demographics when he joined the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment about six months ago. He then went to staff for ideas on how to advance gender equity in the admittedly “blokey” department and got lots of very good ideas back — along with some backlash from staff who were “highly critical” of the whole initiative.

Baker told The Mandarin he suspects the final plan will be quite similar to the draft, and intends to use it as an implementation guide to get started soon after it is complete. He will chair a project steering committee representing all divisions of DPIPWE.

One employee who contributed to the draft plan said it was “long overdue” and another said it was “fantastic” that the conversation was being had. Another warned that change would not stick unless the “root causes” were addressed; and the surveyed staff said “attitudes, behaviour and culture” were chief among them.

But in terms of concrete ways to modernise the DPIPWE workforce:

“Feedback demonstrated that employees felt current recruitment and promotion practices were the most important tangible negative factor impacting on gender equality in DPIPWE.”

The survey work revealed job flexibility could also make a real difference right away, and revealed “a consistent view” that senior management has never considered gender equity a priority.

There are 11 priority recommendations and 12 secondary recommendations explained in detail in the draft, which would not have been made public if it wasn’t for a tabloid beat-up over the weekend.

The plan doesn’t try to sugarcoat the facts of the current imperfect situation, but Baker and other senior Tasmanian public servants were still surprised to find The Mercury report an “explosive new document” had exposed this inequality, without mentioning a single one of the suggested actions for change.

The article even has space for a union official to say the department and the government are “not doing enough” about the issue, while ignoring all 23 proposals in the leaked draft. The Mandarin understands the newspaper was also provided information about other gender equality efforts in the Department of Premier and Cabinet and elsewhere in the state service, which its editors didn’t find relevant.

The demographic breakdown behind the screaming headline reflects how unfair employment is to women, but it’s also typical of most employers in the country. There are 58% men and 42% women overall, but far less women in senior ranks and many more in part-time roles.

In an effort to drum up more support for change, Baker explained to all staff that less than half of the women in DPIPWE work full-time, only 3 of 20 senior executives are women, and that there is an 11% gap in average pay.

Setting out some thought-provoking questions about barriers and cultural issues, he added unequivocally:

“These statistics are not good enough. We need to change them for the better now.”

‘Fierce resistance’

Baker told The Mandarin the news report’s suggestion there had been “some fierce resistance” to the new plan was an exaggeration, in his view. He isn’t sure exactly how many employees don’t accept or understand the need for change but is optimistic an increasing number will come around.

Pushing cultural change in a large group is a big job that cannot occur overnight, he pointed out. Baker felt that being frank and open about the workforce demographics, and how the department’s “male-centric” culture disadvantages female employees, would increase the chance of success.

Everyone was invited to contribute to the set of practical steps, and while most staff had nothing to add, the deputy secretary was pleased that nearly 150 employees or about 11% of DPIPWE attended the workshops. According to the draft:

“Attendance at the workshops was reasonably well spread across levels within the organisation, geographical locations and Divisions, and was consistent with DPIPWE’s age demographics.

“However, there was one significant divergence. Despite making up 58% of employees, only 27% of registered workshop participants were male.”

The majority of the emailed responses to the deputy secretary were positive and productive but others indicated that an unknown proportion of employees “resent any suggestion that changes are required to address gender issues”. One of the employees whose thoughts went into the draft voiced concerns of response overreach:

“Despite being female and recognising the imbalance I strongly believe that the best person for the job should be selected at all times.”

This article was first published on our sister site, The Mandarin

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin, based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.

Website: The Mandarin

Twitter: @Stevie_Easton

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