Two years ago Crikey wrote about how the key economic agencies of the Commonwealth still seemed to be predominantly male institutions, despite the fact that the public service is increasingly a female-staffed institution (around 58% of public servants are women, and rising).

But the latest public service annual reports show that some significant progress is being made. At Treasury, which was sufficiently concerned about the dearth of women in its ranks to establish a “Progressing Women” program to remedy it, 2013-14 was a significant milestone — 50.6% of Treasury staff were women last year, up from 47.6% the year before. The level of women at senior executive service (SES) levels rose from 24.4% to one-third. Admittedly, Treasury’s ongoing program of redundancies would have helped; voluntary redundancies tend to be taken by older employees, meaning more men than women are likely to leave. But there was bad news when it came to the appointment of women to the boards of portfolio bodies — appointments that are usually approved at the political level. Only 28% of those appointments were of women in 2013-14, down from 38% in 2012-13.

And the Reserve Bank hasn’t had much luck increasing the level of female staff — that fell for the second year running at the Bank and is now not much above 40%, although the level of women in management positions did rise to 31%. However, there are fewer concerns at Finance (where Jane Halton took over earlier this year) with the overall level of women rising from 53% to nearly 55%, though the number of SES women only rose from 34% to 35%.

Defence, however, remains the bastion of blokiness — less than 41% of Defence’s public service staff are women — exactly the same level as 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2010-11 — although unusually, the level of female SES is exactly the same as in the rest of the staff.

All of those figures are of course far in excess of the level of female representation in cabinet  (5%) and the ministry (17%) despite media efforts to dress up the government’s in-house Coalition Women’s Staff Network as a feminist initiative. Still, if nothing else the dearth of senior women in the political process should silence Islamophobes, given the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, has a cabinet with eight women, or 24% — far in excess of secular, meritocratic, non-discriminatory Australia.

Peter Fray

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