Is gender equality compatible with APS business rationales?

image representing gender equality
  • Published Date: 19 June 2020

Since the 1980s public services have been dominated by the ideology of New Public Management (NPM), which holds that government services should be designed, organised and managed in a quasi-business manner, bringing private sector principles of efficiency, productivity and accountability into the public sector.

During this period, issues of equity were sidelined but in recent times Australian governments have demonstrated a renewed interest in progressing gender equality for their workforces. In 2016, the Australian Government released the “Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2019” resulting in a tranche of new gender equality policies being introduced into the Australian Public Service (APS) in 2017.

New research – by UNSW Canberra’s Dr Sue Williamson, ANZSOG’s Dr Lisa Carson, and the University of Sydney’s Dr Meraiah Foley – published in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has examined how the tenets of NPM are reflected in these gender equality policies and considers whether NPM may help or hinder gender being ‘undone’ or ‘redone’ in APS organisations.

Women comprise almost 60 per cent of APS employees, but represent just over a third of senior leaders. Women are also disproportionately represented in part-time employment, which is associated with slower career progression, representing 82 per cent of part-time employees.

Using content analysis, the authors examined the Gender Equality Action Plans (GEAPs) of all 18 federal Australian government departments to assess whether and to what extent NPM principles manifest. Claims about whether NPM has marginalised efforts to progress gender equality and has contributed to reinforcing stereotypical gender roles in workplaces were explored.

Taken together, the authors argue that while some early NPM reforms benefited women and assisted women’s passage into the senior echelons of the APS, systemic reforms have been less prevalent, and an NPM market-orientation has contributed to the marginalisation of gender equality as an issue.

The authors found that the depths and strength of GEAPs ranged from brief mission statements and high-level actions of only one or two pages to comprehensive strategies with actions, timelines and accountabilities. All contained elements of NPM to varying degrees, for example:

  • Using ‘business case’ rationales – attracting employees from a greater pool, increasing productivity and capability – to justify moves towards gender equality, rather than a worthy endeavor in and of itself;
  • A reliance on the role of managers acting as role models and advancing behaviour change, often with little support; and
  • A focus on individuals through initiatives such as unconscious bias training, mobility for individuals and encouraging men to work flexibly, rather than more structural changes

The authors also found a lack of, or varying definitions of key terms indicating a lack of consistent understanding. For instance, only a few GEAPs provided a definition of ‘gender equality’, one of which defined it as “all employees are able to receive and enjoy the same rewards, resources and opportunities regardless of their gender identity”. These types of definitions, whilst providing unequivocal support for gender equality, are somewhat undermined in practice by a focus on the individual – with little reference to or actions aimed at addressing systemic issues. Most GEAPs did not include a definition of gender equality. Rather, it appears as though it is largely conflated with parity in numbers in senior leadership, ignoring other aspects of gender inequality, such as occupational gender segregation and pay disparity, among other aspects.

In regard to targeted initiatives to overcome systemic discrimination, there was very little mention of such approaches in the GEAPs. Most included timelines for activities to be conducted over the forthcoming three-year period, however, no department had meaningfully adopted a staged approach to implementing the various initiatives and gains. Instead, most of the initiatives appeared to be isolated and disconnected from previous measures. The authors note that when it comes to implementing such policies in practice, previous research has shown that a staged, iterative approach is the most effective way to progress and embed gender equality.

For these reasons, the authors conclude that the current approach taken with the GEAPs is part of a neoliberal, individualised, and “moderate” feminist approach to securing gender equality, which has replaced prior Equal Employment Opportunity approaches. This type of approach dovetails with NPM tenets where individuals are responsible for their own well-being, whilst ignoring the need for structural change.

Although the policies may contribute somewhat to progressing gender equality, a lack of systemic changes may have a limited impact on changing the gendered nature of public sector agencies.

The authors conclude that while exemplars of good practice plans do exist within the APS, few mechanisms exist to increase the managerial capability to implement gender equality initiatives at the local level. In practice, they recommend that meaningful monitoring and evaluation is required to gauge the extent of progress but is currently lacking.

Dr Sue Williamson is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Canberra and has led previous ANZSOG-funded research into how middle-managers can advance gender equality, which recognises the crucial role that formal and informal actions by those managers play.

Dr Lisa Carson is Principal Research & Policy Advisor at ANZSOG and a Research Fellow at the Public Service Research Group, UNSW Canberra.

Dr Meraiah Foley is Deputy Director of the Women and Work Research Group at the University of Sydney.