Women as agents of change
Stephen Sedgwick AO,
Australian Public Service Commissioner
(Check against delivery)
CEDA’s Women in Leadership Series
Friday, 29th June 2012
Firstly, thank you for inviting me to be with you today. It is not often that one gets the opportunity to speak publicly on such an important issue.
An issue that exists in both the private and public sectors, across domestic and international borders and, one that we might be hoping we could assume is dealt with and move on.
Before I begin let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Equality and diversity are topics that are scattered across discussion boards, within parliamentary debates and throughout policy in many organisations.
There has been an awful lot of talk and, I would argue that there has also been a lot of action.
It is well over a hundred years since South Australia, in 1884, extended the right to vote for adult women and just over 100 years since the passage of the first Public Service Act, which, by the way, specifically envisaged equal pay for men and women.
And in 1999 Emily Pankhurst was named by Time as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th Century.
Of course, there are many examples of what women have done to change our planet, the fabric of our society and, in my realm, create and deliver brilliant policy.
And although much progress has been made, we would not be here today if the equality issue had been fixed.
For example women are still not equally represented in the most senior roles in the Public Service and I recently read that 72 companies in the ASX 200 do not have women on their boards.
Given what has been going on over the last 100 years this appears to be somewhat out of kilter with the expected progress from the days of the suffragettes.
In CEDA’s publication, Women in Leadership: Looking below the surface, you say:
“Unlocking the female potential and underutilised labour pool is certainly one solution to improving the skills shortage that currently threatens Australia’s continued economic growth.”
I can only agree!
And, I’ll argue, this is part of a larger diversity issue that includes people with a disability and Indigenous people.
It is something that the Australian Public Service has been working to resolve for many years.
As we are one of Australia’s largest employers, with approximately 165,000 staff spread across the country, this is a particularly important issue for us.
So what is a change agent anyway:
- Someone who models new possibilities?
- Someone who demonstrates through success that things can change?
- Someone who supports and encourages others for improvement?
A change agent is all of these, but possibly the most fully formed definition I was able to find was “A person whose presence or thought processes cause a change from the traditional way of handling or thinking about a problem” – this courtesy of Google
This last definition certainly opens up an interesting line of enquiry.
I first joined the public service 40 years ago, in 1972.
Perhaps my sample was biased a little by the fact that I joined Treasury, which is still not seen as the most female-friendly place amongst departments (Martin Parkinson is trying to change that!), but back then there were certainly not a lot of women around outside of the typing pool.
Today there are many more women than men in the APS; and although only 20% of Secretaries are female, women comprise 38% of the SES – tantalisingly close to the so called 40,40,20 rule ie that a minimum of 40% should be women, 40 % men, and the other 20 is up for grabs!!!
By the way, the first female secretary in the APS was appointed in 1985, Ms Helen Williams AO, who headed the then Department of Education and Youth Affairs. She was one of 31 agency heads.
(Marie Coleman was the first woman to be appointed to a statutory post, the Social Welfare Commission, in 1972)
A bit of history may help explain why it took so long for women to reach these levels.
Although the Public Service Act of 1902 enshrined the principle of equal pay, it also required women to resign on marriage.
This was known as the marriage bar and probably led to an early version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” behaviour, particularly for those women who were in valuable positions such as assistants to senior men.
And despite the PS Act’s support for the principle of equal pay, in 1923 the Public Service Arbitrator laid down clearly for the first time why men’s and women’s wages should differ - and established principles that survived until 1953.
To quote him: “The general experience throughout the world, as indicated by statistics published in many countries, is that the effective service of women is considerably below that of men, even in the same occupation, and that this is due principally to (1) loss of services through marriage, (2) greater absences on account of sickness, and (3) sapping vitality of unmarried women at an earlier age of life.”
In 1963, a minute from an Assistant Director to his Director advised that it was difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners, including because “A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife, who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman Trade Commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work.”
I’ll come back to this one.
The marriage bar was lifted in 1966, but attitudes only changed slowly.
I vividly recall, for example, a discussion with a Division head circa 1978 about the suitability for promotion of a preferred candidate in a selection process, where the possibility that she would have to go home at 5pm to cook dinner for hubbie was considered to be a factor in the decision!
In the event this thinking did not affect the decision and the woman was promoted – but I recall being startled at the time by the discussion....
I guess I can only speak for myself but a person’s gender today plays no part in my assessment of the value of their ideas or of their contribution.
I’m not sure that every woman in the APS feels the same way, though.
Indeed I have had a number of interesting conversations with colleagues in the Commission as we have thought about what to say in this presentation.
The Commission is overwhelmingly a female workforce, has twice been headed by women, and has gender balance across its leadership team
Yet views still differ (including between women) – for example, about whether there are significant gender differences in leadership styles or whether the differences are behaviourally based.
Although us men may feel relaxed and comfortable that equality has been achieved, or is soon to be achieved at the most senior levels simply because of the momentum building in the feeder groups and the quality of the candidates that we observe in our workplaces on a daily basis, no doubt there are many women for whom the battle is far from over.
Many still feel:
- A sense of isolation because they are different (nothing wrong with being different!), especially in some occupational groups, some locations.
- An Inability to participate fully because of the burden of care, for youngies, oldies and in betweenies or of other responsibilities – though this, too, may be changing as access to part time working and mat leave is being extended to men, who can now exercise socially acceptable choices previously predominantly available to (or required of) women.
- The possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in assumptions made about leadership styles and preferences. assumptions based on an individual’sdress sense is one of these;and it will be interesting to see whether assumptions that are sometimes made about the commitment of those who work part time change if the proportion of men who access such arrangements rises dramatically as the generations roll through the work force.
These issues are real – and, I would like to suggest, these issues exist for all forms of difference, be they disability, culture, ethnicity, race, location, age.
All can be mapped into this framework and make just as much sense.
And I’ve no doubt that I could find you just as many outrageous quotes from history about the lack of capacity of indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, about inferior cultures, the intellect of country people or jokes about elderly drivers to illustrate the point about difference.
Is the public service a different place because it has many more women in senior roles than previously?
I certainly hope so! In fact I know so….
But change is not valuable in and of itself.
One thing we know about contemporary policy challenges is that, increasingly, many are best viewed from a number of different angles and perspectives
They are best addressed as multi disciplinary, multi dimensional, even multi jurisdictional issues – indeed sometimes it is not even clear that we will correctly identify the nature of the problem, let alone the solution, UNLESS we bring a range of perspectives to bear that can only be found in a diverse workforce that is empowered to contribute.
Think climate change; think indigenous disadvantage for example.
Often these issues challenge our traditional ideas of leadership, which placed a premium on technical expertise and the capacity of the leader to “know the answer”.
Increasingly, the task of the leader is to deal with complexity and ambiguity not by “solving the problem” but by establishing a culture and processes that empower innovation and bring diverse talents together.
Ronald Heifetz, of Harvard, argues that many of the biggest issues today should be viewed as adaptive challenges which are not best addressed through traditional linear approaches to problem solving - and, much of our current approach to developing leaders in the APS is based on his work in this field.
Our model is intended to be free of bias or any type stereotyping.
We refer to it as the knowing, doing, being framework.
Think of this as management 101 - people or change management; program and risk management; and the fundamental underpinnings of ‘public service craft’.
This concerns the behavioural competencies of leaders.
Our well established integrated leadership system (ILS) has been in place for more than 10 years and remains a good reflection of the behaviours we expect of our leaders; that they shape strategic thinking, achieve results, communicate with influence, cultivate productive working relationships and exemplify personal drive and integrity
This is a new element of our framework.
It recognises that part of the leadership development story is a very personal one – that a leaders’ ability to excel in the other dimensions relies in part on their own self-awareness and situational awareness; and on their capacity to be “self directed” when the occasion warrants and stand apart from the group think
Not everyone needs to have those adaptive leadership skills – but we certainly would like every leader to appreciate the nature of the issues that they face in any given situation, know themselves well enough to know when they need help, and have sufficient self-confidence to get the help they need.
That’s a big topic – and one for another day.
I raise it simply to reinforce the point that, in our environment, gender equality is not about women as agents of change (although indeed they have been, applying google’s definition literally)
Rather it is a response to a business imperative that we support and value difference - be it situations, people, challenges – because otherwise we can’t do our jobs well!