Solving the gender target puzzle

Renee Leon

Image license from Adobe Stock

Accountability, evidence-based practices, and visibly supportive leadership pave the way for organisations to achieve their gender targets, Dr Jill Gould, Professor Carol Kulik, and Associate Professor Shruti Sardeshmukh from the University of South Australia write.

Women make up the majority of the Australian public sector workforce, but their representation in senior roles is not proportional.

Gender targets are a strategy designed to drive improvements in female representation in senior roles. In fact, Australian governments at federal, state and local levels have imposed gender targets of 50 percent female representation in senior roles.

Yet, a disparity in female representation in senior roles remains, showing that gender targets are not having the impact that governments would have expected.

For this to change, governments need to set fewer but clearer targets, establish good practices, and get their chief executives on board. 

Trickle-down effects sometimes trickle out

Our previous research in an Australian public service found that, over a five-year period, increasing female representation at the executive level had a positive impact on female representation at the executive-feeder level. Researchers call this a trickle-down effect.

Surprisingly, this trickle-down effect weakened after the public service introduced a gender target. 

Looking at the effect within individual departments in this public service, it also turned out to be consistent in some departments but inconsistent in others even though they had the same gender target.

We spoke to senior members of this public service to understand this variation.

Gender targets get lost in the crowd

Governments introduce gender targets expecting individual departments will act on them. However, this outcome isn’t a certainty – targets may generate a flurry of activity in some contexts but go unnoticed in others.

In the public service we investigated, there were almost 100 targets introduced at the same time as the executive-level gender target. This meant that department managers, with limited resources, had to decide which targets to address and which to put on the backburner. A lack of accountability for the executive-level gender target meant that it was often the one ignored.

Governments need to recognise that departments have finite resources and will, therefore, focus on the targets for which they are held accountable.

To make gender targets more effective, governments should limit the number of targets that departments are expected to achieve and require regular reporting to establish departmental accountability.

Some practices are missing or ineffective

Managers may have a genuine interest in improving female representation in senior roles but lack the knowledge to identify and implement effective practices.

Departments don’t always adopt the evidence-based top-down practices that help increase female executive representation directly or the bottom-up practices that support women to progress through the department. To succeed, departments need to incorporate both.

There’s a robust body of literature demonstrating the value of these practices and departments need to incorporate both types to make progress on gender targets.

Effective top-down practices include removing gendered language from job descriptions, lengthening shortlists and making sure there are at least two women on the list. There should also be women on interview panels who actively recruit via their professional networks.

These practices increase the likelihood that women will apply for, will be considered for, and will be hired into senior roles.

Bottom-up practices include programs that give women access to powerful mentors; introducing leadership training; and publicly supporting flexible work (including part-time work). These practices help women navigate their way up the departmental hierarchy.  

Chief executives make the difference

There’s one more piece to the puzzle. In the public service we investigated, a battle was being waged between gender target champions and blockers.

Champions supported efforts to achieve a gender target, while blockers ignored the target or dragged their feet on gender initiatives. Without support, internal champions’ efforts to make progress toward the gender target were repeatedly derailed.  

The chief executive’s actions clearly differentiated the departments with a consistent trickle-down effect from those with an inconsistent effect.

The chief executives in these consistent departments were vocal in their support of both the target and its internal champions. Actions spoke louder than words.

The chief executive’s support had to be clearly visible to overcome blockers’ resistance. Governments can motivate chief executives to support gender targets by building responsibility for gender initiatives into their job description and positioning gender diversity as a key performance indicator.

A gender target can be a powerful driver for achieving proportional gender representation in senior roles. However, simply imposing a target is not enough.

A gender target needs to be front and centre, reinforced with the right mix of practices, appropriate accountability and supported by a vocal chief executive.

Read the full article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration