Women in senior roles

There is a clear gender gap at the highest levels of the NSW public sector. While women comprise two-thirds of the total workforce, they hold only one-third of senior positions. While there has been a small increase in numbers over the last three years, the proportion of women at the top has not changed. To address this issue, the Public Service Commissioner commissioned research to examine the participation of women at senior levels in 2014.

The subsequent report16 shows there is a 'pinch point' in gender representation that requires greater attention. While women comprise almost two-thirds of lower grades, they account for approximately half of the feeder groups or pipeline for senior management positions. Beyond this point the pattern is reversed and men hold two-thirds of senior positions.

The key messages from the research are that, firstly, recruitment, selection and promotion of women at the pinch point and beyond requires careful examination and monitoring. Secondly, unconscious bias affects the way women are perceived in terms of their leadership capabilities and willingness to take on senior roles, and this affects their career advancement in multiple ways. This finding is supported by perceptions in the People Matter survey, where women at senior levels were much less likely than men to agree that both genders are given the same opportunities to lead on important work, or that senior managers support the career advancement of women. In the Agency survey, only 15% of agencies reported that gender strategies that provide opportunities to take the lead on important work were highly developed.

Thirdly, the use of flexible work arrangements and career breaks can also have adverse effects on women by reducing their access to opportunity. While 20% of full-time employees are on a salary greater than $102,418, only 7% of part-time employees command the same remuneration. The low uptake of flexible working at senior levels by men and women also has an effect on the large numbers of women who have care responsibilities outside of work.

But uptake of flexible working is improved where there is a culture that explicitly values its use, where there is more flexibility inherent in job design and work processes, and where it involves whole groups, not just individuals. The current reforms to the senior executive structure in the public service provide opportunities for this kind of reform.

Finally, change programs work best when their governance and implementation are shared responsibilities of women and men. Large organisations in Australia, including those profiled in the research as leading practice, are increasingly setting gender targets for women in leadership roles. Targets are shown to be successful when accompanied by good communication and demonstrated executive support.

The Agency survey confirmed that 14 public sector agencies of mixed sizes already have gender targets in place at the senior manager level. Moreover, while 38% of agencies use succession planning as an approach to gender equality, fewer agencies (19%) report having a policy to address gender imbalance.

The Public Service Commissioner will release the research report and work with departments and agencies to champion and facilitate action on gender equity across the public sector. The report's recommendations with regard to gender targets at the department and agency levels – and the setting of key performance indicators related to gender – will be considered. It will be essential to link this work to workforce plans and ensure that the report's recommendations are implemented in a way that reflects the different circumstances of departments and agencies.

16.Baird et al (2014), Advancing women: increasing the participation of women in senior roles in the NSW Public Sector

The Public Service Commission acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which our office stands.