IPAA International Women’s Day – the importance of diversity and women in public administration

IPAA International Women’s Day – the importance of diversity and women in public administration

Office for Women International Forums International Days of Significance International Women’s Day
Thursday, 03 March 2016

Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash

Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash
Minister for Women, Minister for Employment,
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service


Thank you Martin.1

I am delighted to acknowledge Martin as our new Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet. You will all be aware of the commitment Martin has made to progressing gender equality.

As you would all know, Martin is a Male Champion of Change – the group established by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

Male Champions of Change brings together CEOs of some of Australia’s leading private and public organisation who are committed to changing the unacceptably low number of women in leadership in Australia.

During his time as Secretary of Treasury, he overhauled many of the policies and practices within his department to address gender imbalance.

I am looking forward to working with Martin to advance gender equality across Australia’s public service – and beyond!

I am also delighted to acknowledge 2 of the 5 female Secretaries that have joined us this morning – Glenys Beauchamp and Renée Leon.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s wonderful to join you today to celebrate women’s leadership in the public sector, and the importance of diversity in our workplaces.

It’s just under a week until International Women’s Day and this is a great opportunity to reflect on important milestones we’re celebrating this year.


2016 is significant for women’s leadership and empowerment in Australia.

It’s 40 years since a dedicated women’s minister was appointed in this country.

It’s also 40 years since Dame Margaret Guilfoyle became the first woman to be appointed to a federal cabinet portfolio.2

And its 50 years since the last bastion of gender discrimination in the public service—the marriage bar—was finally abolished.

For the uninitiated, this bar meant that once a woman got married, she was forced to resign from her permanent job in the public service.

The passing of these milestones shows how far we’ve come in progressing gender equality over the last half-century.

Not only that, we are world leaders when it comes to policies to improve the lives of women. We have a number of World Firsts!

Australia was the first country to appoint specialist advisors to advise governments about the adverse impacts of their policies on women.3

We led in setting up dedicated units in government departments to monitor women’s services and programmes, and we introduced new initiatives to ensure that women’s opportunities were expanded.4

We were a step ahead in providing funding for specialist women’s services such as refuges, rape crisis centres and health centres.5

We were the first to implement a National Agenda for Women to ensure progress was being measured.6

And as we all know today – you don’t know what you don’t know – so measure it.

Today we lead the world in gender pay gap reporting and we are committed to a 40 per cent target for the appointment of women to Government boards.

We are a country with paid parental leave, a family court, no fault divorce and we have a Sex Discrimination Act.

I am also proud that this Government has elevated the issue of women’s safety to the national agenda and we are making inroads on tackling violence against women and their children.


For years the Australian Public Service has lead by example when it comes to gender diversity in the workplace. In the Australian Public Service, over 58.4 per cent of the workforce are women.7

In 2015, the APS reached gender-parity at the EL1 level and below.8

And between 1996 and 2015, female representation at the EL2 and SES Band 1 levels almost doubled.9

Last year we marked the anniversary of the first female Secretary, Helen Williams, who was appointed as Secretary of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs in 1985.

Following in her footsteps, we now have five female Secretaries leading Commonwealth departments. We have much to be proud of. But we need to do better – we can improve.

In a country that prides itself on the fair go, women are still being penalised at work because of their gender.

I truly believe that in Australia we do believe that men and women are equal.

Our reality is though, when we unpack this statement, this is still not true on a number of indicators.

Negative stats

There are on average 2.3 million working-age Australian women - aged 15-64 - who are not in the workforce.10

That is almost one million more than the number of men.

For women who do work, they work, on average, 10 hours less every week.11

In the APS, although women’s representation at the EL2 and SES Band 1 levels has almost doubled, that still only translates to 42 per cent of women occupying these positions.12

And the higher you look up in leadership, the fewer women you see.

Women comprise only 36 per cent of SES Band 2s and 35 per cent of SES band 3s.

And the number of female Secretaries remains unchanged at five for the past twelve years.

Gender equality remains a fundamental challenge for the Australian Public Service as it does for most employers.

And the question we need to ask – as employees and as policy makers – is how can we do better?

So why is gender diversity important?

We know that diverse workplaces are not just good for women.

The benefits of increased diversity in the workplace are well documented.

Organisations with greater diversity have greater productivity and performance and their employees are happier. They also attract the best employees, and have less staff turnover.

Something you may not know is that organisations with diverse boards outperform those that don’t.13

The most innovative companies understand that investing in a diverse workforce is an investment in their future.

Australian companies like ANZ Bank, Atlassian and Westpac.14

These high-performing organisations understand that diversity is a precondition for more responsive, innovative and more competitive organisations.15

And organisations with diverse workforces also attract the best employees, and have less staff turnover.

Diversity and specific departmental initiatives

There are already a number of great examples, across the APS, where departments are taking the lead to increase gender diversity.


Treasury’s Progressing Women initiative – where Treasury made it a strategic business priority to achieve gender equality, particularly in senior leadership.

Setting targets and holding leadership throughout the organisation to account is one way of ensuring that the APS better reflects the population it serves.


Earlier this week, Minister Julie Bishop and Secretary Peter Varghese — another Male Champion of Change — launched DFAT’s Gender Equality and Empowerment Strategy.

This Strategy emphasises that empowering women and girls is critical to supporting economic growth, poverty reduction, development and security, particularly in our region.

The Strategy will drive progress in three areas; ending violence against women and girls; women’s economic empowerment; and women’s participation in leadership and peacebuilding.

It is a great initiative that builds on the Government’s efforts to prioritise gender equality across Australia’s foreign affairs and aid efforts.


And finally, Defence’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy has been developed to increase diversity in Defence to better reflect the Australian society. It seeks to improve opportunities and workplace flexibility to create a fairer and more inclusive work environment to position Defence as an employer of choice for women and men alike.

As Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, I expect the Australian Public Service to be a pacesetter in this field.

Many in the private sector already understand the benefits of a diverse workforce.

At Telstra, all positions are flexible—the first major Australian company to take this approach.

Any new job will be able to be performed from home, align with work hours, or other flexible arrangements.

I’ve spoken with Telstra about this initiative and how they are managing in such a large workplace.

Their answer is that they just changed the initial answer to the question can I work flexibly from yes to no – in other words the presumption at Telstra is that you can work flexibly – not that you can’t.

And ANZ has followed suit. They announced in February last year that all their 30,000 roles in Australia and New Zealand were to be considered flexible.16

And then there is unconscious bias - or as I prefer say — just plain bias — is a very real barrier to gender diversity.

A Harvard study showed that if identical CVs were submitted by students applying for postgraduate research positions, the outcome was heavily determined by their gender.

If their name was Jennifer not John they:

  • rated lower for competence
  • rated lower for hire-ability
  • had 15 percent less starting salary and
  • rated lower for amount of mentoring offered.

And it must be said that some of the assessors were women — proving we are not immune to bias and both men and women must check our attitudes.

The Bank of Queensland has introduced a very simple measure to combat this bias.

The bank has removed all identifying features from resumes — such as the applicant’s name - submitted for senior roles to ensure they interview the best person for the job.

Another prime example of overcoming gender bias in the workplace is the blind audition for orchestras.

Research has shown that explicit discrimination exists so over the past several decades, orchestras have started changing the way they hire musicians.

Candidates sit behind a screen to play so the jury cannot see them.

A little finessing was required when this was first introduced because of the tell-tale signs of a women’s high heel shoes.

Now even the tell-tale signs of a woman’s shoes — such as the sound of high heels — are being removed with candidates being asked to take off their footwear for auditions.

These changes have made an impact.

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the US has 5% women – today the figure is closer to 30%.

Improving workplace diversity and flexibility is just one way we can support more women to participate in the work place.

That is why the Government is:

  • Investing around $40 billion in child care and early learning support, including an increase of more than $3 billion under the Jobs for Families Child Care Package, to provide greater child care choices for the families of more than 1.2 million children per year.
  • Supporting women to innovate, succeed as entrepreneurs and thrive in jobs of the future, as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
  • Examining the tax and transfer system and its impact on working women and their families.

The Government has put in place the building blocks to boost women’s participation, but we must all take responsibility for changing structures and attitudes in our own workplaces.

Women’s Workforce Participation

Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it is an economic and social priority for Australia.

As the Prime Minister said, the driver of our prosperity in the years ahead will not be the resources that lie underneath the ground—it will be the 24 million people who walk on top of it.17

Australia’s best asset is our people.

Harnessing this power will allow us to build a workforce to capitalise on the opportunities of the 21st century economy.

Raising women’s workforce participation by just four per cent to match Canadian levels would inject an additional $25 billion into our economy every year.18

Greater gender diversity in the workplace is essential to raising all of our living standards and securing Australia’s future prosperity.

It is an unmissable opportunity to build a more agile and competitive economy.


Australian women were afforded the right to vote and stand for office in 1902, but it would take almost 20 years before Edith Cowan became the first Australian woman elected to political office—in my home state of Western Australia.

It would take more than 60 years before a woman was appointed as a Minister.

Today we reflect on how far we have come and what more we must do to create equality of opportunity for all Australian women.

The statistics tell us that on their current trajectory, it will take 117 years until gender parity is a reality in Australian workplaces.19

I don’t want to wait 117 years.

We need men, women, business and Government all working together, taking responsibility for this change. It is a commitment that all Australians must make this International Women’s Day.

From graduates to Secretaries, everyone here is in a position to affect change in your own departments.

I urge you all to step up in your work and workplace to make the APS a world leader in gender diversity.

1 PM&C Secretary Dr Martin Parkinson to make introductory remarks before introducing the Minister to speak
2 Women, Their rights in Australia over the past 20 Years. PDF 140KB
3 Summers, pg. 15
4 Summers, find ref.
5 Summers.
6 Summers, pg. 15
7 Australian Public Service Statistical Bulletin 2014–15
8 Australian Public Service Statistical Bulletin 2014–15
9 Australian Public Service Statistical Bulletin 2014–15
10 Source: ABS Monthly Labour Force Survey 2015; 15-64 year olds
11 Department of Employment
12 Australian Public Service Statistical Bulletin 2014–15
13 Analysis conducted by the Reibey Institute of ASX 500 companies in 2011 found that companies with female representation on their boards outperformed others by 8.7 per cent over five years.
14 New Women New Men New Economy. Pg. 126.
15 New Women New Men New Economy. Pg. 140.
16 The Australian article on ANZ Bank makes flexible
17 PM innovation statement
18 Grattan Institute’s 2012 report Game Changers
19 Report on Time for Gender Parity is Now. PDF 511KB