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Kerri Hartland, our newest top female bureaucrat

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Newly-installed Secretary of the Department of Employment Kerri Hartland feels the Australian Public Service is at a tipping point.

With eight out of eighteen departmental secretaries now women (that’s an impressive 44.4 per cent), Kerri believes that the fight for gender equality—within the APS at least—is very close to being won.

“We are so close to 50-50 and I think once we get there, there is a critical mass which ensures that equity more naturally filters down through all aspects of the service. It is truly something to be celebrated.”

Not that it hasn’t been an uphill battle for many years.

But Kerri herself admits she was rather blithely unaware of the extent of entrenched gender gaps in the public service until she found herself promoted to a position no other woman had assumed before.

The former Queensland rural journalist who got her first break in coming to Canberra for a seat in the Press Gallery during the late 1980s recalls “never really noticing how many women there were, or weren’t,” during those first few years in the Public Service.

She was poached from the media by the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and would earn an Economics degree and Master of Legal Studies to solidify her post-journalism qualifications and quickly cement her within the senior management levels of the federal bureaucracy.

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She went on to earn a reputation as a trouble-shooter, gifted in negotiating change management, service delivery reform and promoting progressive cultures across departments as diverse as Primary Industries, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Human Services, Immigration, Industry and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

And it was at ASIO that Kerri stopped to really take stock of that glass ceiling.

When Kerri was made Deputy Director of ASIO in 2011, she was the first women appointed to the role. She was also the first external candidate hand-picked for the critical position in Australia’s spy agency.

“I really felt quite a responsibility as I considered this job as I was very conscious of the pressure not to set back other women if it was not a good fit. I felt a weight of responsibility to break new ground really successfully—lest I make it tougher for the next women coming up through the ranks. And for the first time within the APS I really stopped to think about the glass ceiling and what it meant to me and other women around me.”

When she started the job, Kerri observed a female representation in Band 1 positions of around 25 per cent. She set about assessing what was holding women back from careers in intelligence and she saw the usual suspects—managers failing to adopt flexible workplace strategies to attract and retain the best talent. Of course, ASIO also had some other impediments—namely the 24-hour nature of some jobs, for example surveillance.

“I spent time in focus groups, teasing out all the factors that were playing a part, and in the end I thought it came down to leadership—that managers could do more to encourage women to consider positions they may not have thought they could take on…And they could do more to ensure they succeeded in these roles.

“Many of them were simply unaware that they could play a part. And there is actually a lot you can do to make jobs more flexible, including job sharing and creating more part-time roles. I have consistently found throughout my career that the benefits to employers of ensuring their staff have truly flexible workplaces are huge…In fact you have to keep an eye on ensuring that staff don’t try and overcompensate with the hours they work.”

By the time Kerri moved to a new role as a Deputy Secretary in Finance earlier this year before her September elevation to head Employment, ASIO’s female Band 1 representation had increased to 50 per cent.

Now Kerri is keenly focussed on the need to promote gender equality across the service. “It has taken me a while to recognise the important role as a senior woman that I have played. And I have never wanted it to seem like it is about me—that my gender interest is self-serving. But I am passionate about women recognising opportunities and seeing role models to follow.”

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Kerri on the slopes with Brian and Jordyn.

To that end, Kerri has also consciously blocked out time during her working week to pursue her other full-time position—that of mother of 16-year-old Jordyn. Kerri has consistently been a presence at Jordyn’s school for events and special occasions, and she’s juggled her diary with that of her husband—agricultural economist and former head of ABARE Brian Fisher—so that a normal family life has been achievable alongside two demanding careers.

On weekends you will find Kerri cooking, at the gym, or curled on the sofa with Jordyn watching Netflix. That is, when they aren’t out shopping together. Cold weather sees the family of mad skiers hit the slopes.

“I won’t say there hasn’t been a lot of juggling…and it has not been all plain sailing…I also think I somehow got off lightly just having the one child and I can’t really imagine the pressure on families with lots of kids.

“But it is important to send a message that family and children can, and should, be prioritised. And it is the senior staff who can lead by example on this. This includes for the dads as well, who often don’t receive the support they should for wanting to carve out space for their children in their careers.”

Now that her daughter is in Year 11, Kerri is even more attuned to the need to keep fighting for workplace equality—in and outside of the public sector. And while only three weeks into the job, she recognises there is plenty of scope within her new portfolio to influence the national workplace agenda through setting best practice.

“I have a daughter who is going to move into the workplace in a few years so it really hits home to me how important it is that we truly reform our workplaces so that she can achieve whatever she wants to achieve in the workforce and be rewarded equally with all her peers.”

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