Often we don’t know what we are capable of until we see someone else achieve…
“The glass ceiling is still there. And you hit it at different levels and parts of the APS. This needs to change.”
Australia’s most senior female public servant Jane Halton has delivered a parting shot to “manterrupters” in the public service, calling on senior male bureaucrats to take a more practical approach to ensuring the voices of women are heard.
Ms Halton, who announced her retirement as Secretary of the Department of Finance last month, used a valedictory speech at the Institute of Public Administration of Australia ACT’s Secretary Series to call on senior male public servants to take a proactive approach to ensuring young women were gaining enough experience to assume more senior roles. This was preferable to complaining that none were qualified, or actually decided to apply, when SES vacancies needed to be filled.
Ms Halton was the youngest department head when she was appointed Secretary of Health at age 42, and is the first female to ever run Finance. She is leaving after 33 years as a trailblazing career public servant. But even she suffered from manterruptions.
“The numbers… show women have made progress up the leadership ranks, but some people in this audience can tell you, the glass ceiling is still there. And you hit it at different levels and parts of the APS. This needs to change. While I fully support the work that is done on unconscious bias and other academic endeavours, we also need to do some really practical things. Now.
“Is it OK that women get interrupting many more times than men in meetings? Is it OK when a woman makes a good point in a meeting, the conversation moves on and then the point is repeated by a man two or three speakers later, and everyone congratulates him on what a good suggestion he has made? What’s the answer? No.
“And while it isn’t obvious. Both practices remain common. Even in workplaces where there’s apparent gender balance. And, I know you will find this hard to believe, even to people like me.”
To an audience of more than 250, including 12 departmental secretaries and the Commissioner, Ms Halton urged all bureaucrats not only to notice these behaviours – but to call them out.
“Just as Donald Trump was called out for interrupting Hilary Clinton 51 times (to her 17) in the first debate, we need to make sure we call out these behaviours,” she said on Thursday night.
“To do this, here’s my suggestion, introduce a no-interruption rule and let everyone all have an equal say. It’s just not that hard. I still go to too many meetings where there are very few, if any women, and then they say nothing.”
She also said it was beholden on senior bureaucrats to be more proactive in fostering female talent.
“If you work in a male-dominated part of the service, take women with you to meetings and ensure they get a say. Don’t just agonise about not having enough women to promote to the SES. Find them…give them the experience to ensure they’ll make it. Don’t negotiate this, just do it.”
She suggested an ideal ratio was 40-40-20, to ensure there was a minimum of 40 per cent of each gender to balance every work place.
Of course, Ms Halton also recognized how much had changed for the professional status of public servants since she was a teenager at Phillip College and her classmates watched beige cardigan-clad “pubes” march in and out of the Woden bus interchange.
For women in particular, the end of the marriage bar in 1966 (which previously denied employment in the bureaucracy for any woman once she wed) allowed a slow but steady transformation of the male-dominated bureaucracy. When Halton began her career, women made up 38.5 per cent of the public service, now that has lifted to 58.4 per cent, albeit concentrated at the lower levels.
A 12 per cent El1 rate has lifted to 50.8, while a 4 per cent SES rate has lifted to 43.3 per cent.
But Ms Halton warned against complacency. Just because public service gender gaps were better than many private sector industries, and the wage gap was lower (around 7 per cent), did not mean that women had achieved equality.
“The danger for us in the APS is frankly that we think we’re there yet.”
“If you look at what happens in the corporate sector, you get a stagnation. The challenge is actually to keep driving for the outcome.”
Ms Halton said she did not doubt that every single one of her fellow departmental heads was completely committed to the diversity agenda.
“The challenge is what we do about it and that we don’t lose focus on actually achieving it.”
Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson acknowledged the work yet to be done to address gender equity – noting the community had a right to expect it would be achieved.
Thanking Ms Halton for her dedicated service, Dr Parkinson told the audience, “Yes we’ve made progress and it’s been great, and in recent times (Ms Halton) has sat at the table as one of five female secretaries. But we can do better and we will.
“And you, and everyone here and everyone in the public service should demand that as us of leaders. And if we are not achieving it, keep asking us wheat we are going to do about it.”
Mr Parkinson also even conceded, amid laughter from the audience, that he and others “need to do better on not interrupting”.
Watch Ms Halton’s speech here
Images: Rob Little (RLDI)