We can do more: Top public sector women talk pathways to successful leadership

illustration of a woman climbing a corporate ladder with buildings in the background
  • Published Date: 30 August 2018

The public service in Australia has taken positive steps towards gender equity but there are still barriers preventing women taking up leadership roles, according to three senior public sector women.

Janet Schorer (NSW Children’s Guardian), Katherine Whetton (Deputy Secretary of the National Education Reform Project, Victorian Department of Education and Training) and Keryn Negri (Chief Executive Officer at Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) recently had their public service recognised in this year’s IPAA Top 50 Public Sector Women lists for NSW and Victoria – along with twelve other ANZSOG alums.

The trio said the awards were an honour, which recognised the growing influence of women at senior levels of Australian public services, and the growing opportunities for female leaders.

However, despite their success, they said there are structural and cultural barriers stopping public services from taking full advantage of female leadership – including women’s own lack of confidence in their own ability.

Barriers for women in leadership

Ms Negri, who is working to make VCAT Victoria’s primary independent dispute resolution service more accessible to its users, is a 2012 ANZSOG Executive Fellows Program graduate who has worked in social policy across aged care, employment, Indigenous affairs, consumer affairs and dispute. She said that there was still more to be done to encourage women at senior levels of the public service.

“Yes, we can do more. When you have 67 per cent of your workforce being female, but only 44 per cent of leadership roles, there is clearly more to be done,” she said.

“The public sector has done a lot and is doing better than the private sector, but there is more we can do.

“I think we still have a mindset that you need a type of leadership which has traditionally been done by a bloke – the ‘command and control’ model. But that is beginning to break down, as we navigate complex stakeholder environments which require a kind of flexible leadership which I think women are good at.”

keryn negri

Keryn Negri

Ms Negri said it may take another generation before “that kind of leadership is fully valued”.

“The generation of female leaders bubbling up now are not good at putting ourselves forward. I think when we hear about opportunities we tend to think of our shortcomings rather than reasons why we can do the job.

“That’s one reason the IPAA Awards are good, they give us a shove in the back to push us out on to the stage!”

Ms Schorer, a 2009 ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration alum is currently the NSW Children’s Guardian – a role which sees her improving children’s safety with responsibilities including administering Working with Children Checks, monitoring agencies that arrange statutory out-of-home-care in NSW and monitoring the NSW Carers Register. 

She said that women’s lack of confidence in themselves also remained an issue.

“Women still need to feel that they have fully mastered a position before they move up, whereas men will try when they are about 50 per cent there.

“My message to women is that you need to win that battle with yourself, and make you see the opportunities that are there, and take them.

“You also need to take charge of your own development, and that is one of the things that ANZSOG is good for.”

Ms Whetton, a 2008 ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration graduate who is part of a senior Education Department team implementing major reforms to Victorian schools, said there were more opportunities for women in the public sector than ever before, but there were still things that needed to be done to remove unconscious biases. 

“We still work in a gendered environment, where the language used about men and women is different, and I think can affect women’s confidence. 

“Being in education has made me aware that this starts a lot earlier than the workplace, it’s what people are exposed to from childhood, so it is not something that will change overnight.”

katherine whetton

Katherine Whetton

Ms Whetton said she had “fantastic role models” in the public sector who had inspired her to mentor the next generation.

“[These] women were the real trailblazers and didn’t necessarily have female role models of their own. I’ve made a conscious decision to try and mentor younger women to build their confidence and resilience,” she said.

Work and family: Let’s talk flexibility

The trio agreed that balancing work and family remained a challenge for women who aspired to public sector leadership roles.

Ms Schorer said public services were improving, but still grappling with the issue.

Ms Negri added that there was more to do but the public sector was leading the way, particularly in the legal profession.

“We are still a long way ahead of the private sector, that’s why we get so many good female lawyers coming to the public sector.

“From my personal experience I’ve been able to work out flexible arrangements with my managers, without which I wouldn’t have had the career opportunities I’ve had.”

About the awards

The IPAA Top 50 awards began in Victoria in 2017, with NSW added this year.

Elizabeth Koff, Secretary of NSW Health and Lead Judge for this year’s NSW top 50 list said the initiative was an important step towards encouraging and promoting women to strive for and be successful at senior positions within the public sector.

“The Top 50 provides an opportunity to acknowledge exceptional female leaders in the public sector and shine a light on these leaders as role models for all women in the sector.”

janet schorer

Janet Schorer

Ms Schorer said that she had begun her career as a paediatric nurse, and that everything she had done since was aimed at getting better services for children. In her role as a former executive director in the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, she worked on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the NSW Government’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, said women’s also said a lack of confidence remained an issue.

“My work in the public service has overtly been about contributing to the community by doing the things that no one else does. In the public service we have one purpose, which is not to make money but to work for the betterment of our citizens,” she said.

She said her current role was about ensuring that children had a safe environment wherever they were.

“We need to start having these conversations and ensuring that these kinds of safety expectations are as automatic as putting a seatbelt on a child when they are in the car.” 

Ms Whetton, said that she had built a career in the public sector because she was attracted by the ability of public servants to have a positive influence for disadvantaged people in our community.

“In education, we are working to deliver a number of reforms and see them implemented right through to the level of the classroom and have an impact on student achievement and wellbeing.

“We are doing things that will be life-changing for many students.”

Ms Negri said that she was an ‘accidental’ public servant, whose first six-month contract with the Victorian Department of Human Services in 1998 had got her hooked on policy. She said she realised that the public service is important for giving people a voice and can make huge difference in their lives.

In her current role at VCAT, she is focusing on how to make its operations more customer-centric, to make it more accessible and cater for the 80 per cent of users who are self-represented.

ANZSOG is committed to improving public sector gender equity and recently released research into ways that middle managers can take practical steps towards a more female-friendly workforce.

Other ANZSOG alums named in this year’s Public Sector Top 50 Women lists include: Anna Burgess, Lynn Glover, Susan Middleditch, Brigid Monagle, Rosemary Hegner, Anne Campbell, Dr Liz Develin, Alison Frame, Kate Lorimer-Ward, Sonja Stewart, Dianna Watkins, Caroline Reed.

View the full lists here: