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Gendernomics: more women needed in key policy agencies

Women are missing from some of our most important policy-making agencies, with real consequences for economic policy. Treasury, at least, is trying to improve.

Things have changed somewhat in Canberra since late 1966, when the prohibition on married women in the Australian Public Service was lifted after eight years of consideration by men. Even if, in 1973, women were still regarded primarily as breeding stock for a city in short supply of females (a famous ad to draw women to Canberra lacks only a request for good child-bearing hips), the APS in time became a feminised service: as of 2010-11, 57% of public servants were women.

Only 38% of SES employees are women, but 46% of EL (executive level) public servants are women, and women outnumber men now up to the APS 6 level, whereas in the late 1990s they only outnumbered men up to the APS 4 level.

But there are some key Commonwealth agencies where women continue to be under-represented. Women are only 47% of the Department of Finance and 35% of its SES (only 37% of its EL staff). Only 44% of Reserve Bank staff (most of whom are in Sydney) are women and only 30% of its management positions are held by women. And then there’s Treasury: 26% of Treasury SES are women and only 47% of all staff are women.

That is, our key economic agencies are, while better than they used to be, still places unusually devoid of women. In an era when we have a female Prime Minister, female Governor-General and female deputy Liberal leader, the prospect of a female Treasury secretary looks remote.

Treasury and Finance are critical players in the policy development process within the Commonwealth. The opposition of Treasury to significant proposals is very difficult to overcome. Finance’s agreement to the costs of proposals is a threshold requirement, and Finance often uses that process to try to impose its own policy views. The RBA of course independently controls monetary policy (by the way the prudential regulator, APRA, has only 17% women in its senior levels). All are places where women are under-represented.

This is partly because the economics backgrounds important for a successful career in Treasury or the RBA dramatically narrows the talent pool for those agencies. Recent data is hard to come by but several years ago the dominance of women in undergraduate enrolments didn’t translate into economics, where only 40% of undergraduates were women, and lower still for postgraduate studies. The teaching of economics is also a male-dominated profession, and that tends to extend through to economists with a public profile — Judith Sloan and Jess Irvine, for example, are the only female economists regularly seen in the media.

Treasury is sufficiently concerned about the dearth of women in its upper ranks to have launched an internal program to address it. Martin Parkinson spoke about the Progressing Women initiative in August:

Diversity has been found to be important to high-performing and healthy organisations, in part because diverse perspectives improve the quality of decision making, and because organisations with better gender balance tend to have more inclusive cultures that optimise the skills and contribution of all their employees. In short, diversity can lead to better employee engagement. It is clear that organisations like Treasury will need to tap into a deeper and more diverse pool of talent and experience if we are to understand and meet the evolving and increasingly complex needs of the public, business and government.”

Parkinson spoke of “a range of subtle cultural, attitudinal and behavioural issues that will take time and persistence to change”.

The RBA is also concerned. It stated in its equity and diversity annual report that “during 2011/12, the bank’s main gender focus was on promoting career and development opportunities for women in the bank”.

Placing women in an “equity and diversity” column to an extent understates the significance of the problem. The public service, which long treated diversity as a box-ticking management fad, has a poor diversity record, particularly in Canberra, a highly mono-cultural city devoid outside the ANU of the sort of ethnic and racial diversity that Australians in larger cities have taken for granted for generations.

It continues to struggle to recruit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff despite an extensive array of programs, and it now employs fewer Australians with disabilities than 20 years ago.

Remedying these gaps continues to be a critical equity and recruitment task for the public service, which is clearly limiting the skills it is drawing on in its recruitment. But the under-representation of women in key economic portfolios has a direct, significant impact on the quality of policy making at the highest levels.

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    It’d be interesting to know the average age of the SES, and the gender profile of recruits at the corresponding time. Is it simply a matter of change yet to completely work its way through the system?

  • 2
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanx for this piece.

    The pipeline hypothesis was disproved for academe and I doubt that it is any truer for the APS.

  • 3
    Liz45
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    And some still question my assertion of a need to change the ingrained male supremacy dogma and actions not only in this country but everywhere? Some will even try and assert that the ‘need’ for feminism no longer applies? (Howard stated thus as I recall?).

    We have LONG way to go! I was one of those women who had to stop work (PMG Telephonist) when I got married. No longer permanent, only allowed to relieve for holidays, sick leave etc. Archaic? Women were also denied naming their husbands/partners as beneficiaries re the Superannuation, as were single men. This impacted on same sex couples of course; their super payments were just included in the ‘kitty’ after their deaths?

    And people wonder why we need to create positions against discrimination and failure to employ women? Or older Australians too! Male and female! Women in senior positions in Corporations has been addressed and a woman is working in that capacity now! Since International Women’s Day as I recall!

  • 4
    Eva Cox
    Posted Monday, 5 November 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    No wonder the bastards get it so wrong. The discipline of economics (left and right)really fails to deal effectively with all those decisions that are not based on rational self interest or other distortions. How can predictions work that assume that emotions do not seriously influence decisions? The discipline is gendered because it ignores so much of what really counts and affects our decisions.

  • 5
    Myriam Robin
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Re: Eva Cox.
    I think the discipline is gendered because of the maths. The gender disparity in high-level university mathematics is (anecdotally) greater than that in economics, and to do economics at a high level, you need advanced maths. Even in high school, girls are often discouraged from doing maths. In my view, that’s where your problem is.

  • 6
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Gavin. Not even a grain of truth to the pipeline idea, then?

    FWIW given I’m batting 0 from 1, I reckon Myriam is on the money.

  • 7
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Worth it just for the advert to get women to come and work in Canberra. That’s a time capsule in itself. :-)

    Mark, of course the ‘pipeline’ issue is a factor, and a significant one. Arguing against it is flying in the face of reality. I’m interested in Gavin’s comments. I haven’t seen any study debunking the pipeline theory, but as I work in a uni and spend inordinate amounts of time reporting on and analysing staff/gender ratios, I suggest it would have been impossible to disprove, and even moreso flying in the face of reality. Universities gender profiles are back in the 70’s in the higher academic and academic management classes, and it is principally founded on two phenomena, the pipeline theory and the longevity within the profession.

    Disproved, not a chance. ‘Cast doubt on’ I could accept as possible, but still highly unlikely.

    And Bernard, are you really casting aspersions on departments that have over 45% female staff? Mate, get on a course in statistics, anything over 40% is akin to parity, and seeking anything higher for either sex cuts across merit selection. Even the women’s movement is now talking about 40/40/20, that being 40% for either sex and 20% subject to other factors, such as merit.

  • 8
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Universities gender profiles are back in the 70’s in the higher academic and academic management classes, and it is principally founded on two phenomena, the pipeline theory and the longevity within the profession.”

    Sorry, 4 phenomena, a frightening ‘boys club’ mentality, and the viciousness of the politics, which is precisely because the stakes are so small (Kissinger).

    This comment will make much more sense if my former comment gets through moderation. Cheers

  • 9
    Posted Tuesday, 6 November 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Australian higher education reached sex parity in its total number of students in 1987 but did not reach sex parity in PhDs until 19 years later in 2006. I suggest that this is inconsistent with the pipeline theory: another explanation is needed for such an extended delay in reaching sex parity in PhDs.

    In 2005 I found similar gaps in women’s share of all students, honours, PhDs and academic appointments at lecturer A, lecturer B, lecturer C and above C from 1988 to 2004. The paper is called ‘The snake that swallowed a mouse: a statistical test of the hypothesis that female senior academic staff appointments are in the pipeline’. I have only just loaded it onto my academia edu site so I doubt that it will appear in search engines yet: one would have to navigate to academia edu.

    Since then Sharon Bell and others have reached similar findings for specific fields of research. Basically, women have dominated enrolments in education, nursing and many of the humanities for years but are still to reach parity of senior academic appointments in those fields.

    This is not just a problem with academe. Women have dominated primary teaching and nursing for years but remain seriously under represented as primary school principals and charge nurses.

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