Treasury’s frolic towards gender equality
Martin Parkinson just couldn’t understand it. The Treasury secretary may have spent years grappling with the economy but this problem seemed even less tractable. Yet, it was internal to management of his own department.
Why did Treasury have so few women in senior positions? Where were the blockages, given the initial intake of men and women was relatively similar? Was there something wrong with culture? How could those percentages be changed?
The result is a case study to be launched in Canberra on Tuesday by Treasurer Joe Hockey – and backed by Chief Executive Women – on how to ensure women get a more equitable share of promotions to senior ranks of Australia’s key policy department.
Altering this has required a major attitudinal shift, which includes training staff to avoid “unconscious bias” and challenging Treasury’s much-prized assertive, argumentative behaviour, as well as setting percentage targets to be achieved.
For Parkinson, it is one of his personal, as well as professional, legacies after being forced out of his role by the Prime Minister after nearly four years in the job.
“I think this is incredibly important to Treasury’s future success,” he says. “In a world where it will be increasingly hard to recruit because there is so much competition, any organisation that does not willingly utilise 100 per cent of the leadership capabilities in its workforce has rocks in its head.
“Put aside all the social, ethical and moral issues. It is an absolute business imperative that you use all your resources available to you to the maximum extent possible.”
And that makes the case study a broader example of how promoting women has to be a deliberate and detailed strategy led from the top in any organisation. Just removing the more obvious blockages or making it easier for more women to balance family responsibilities is clearly not enough – in business or government. In Parkinson’s case, the limits of that approach became obvious after he returned to lead Treasury in 2011 after a stint as head of the Department of Climate Change (another black mark against him in this government).
It struck him then that the majority of his direct reports in the now-abolished department had been female and the way the leadership team had operated was also quite different.
“It led me to the realisation that what we’d been doing in Treasury was focusing on symptoms when there were just things about the way we operated that were acting as barriers to women,” he says.
Those systemic barriers ranged from a culture where people “jostled to be the first person to reach the answer, rather than be willing to hear people out” to a management assumption that [mostly] women working part time work were not that interested in new opportunities.
“It wasn’t that the Treasury wasn’t a collaborative organisation – it is collaborative and collegiate. But I realised that the nature of the policy discussions was quite masculine whereas the nature of the policy discussions on issues – just as deeply technical and complex – in climate change were of a different style,” Parkinson says. “That’s what made me start to think, what is going on here?’’
Parkinson’s initial answer was to get an assessment from external consultants. When he received the report in mid 2011, full of often unpleasant surprises, he warned his staff not to think the secretary was off on a “frolic” and could be waited out.
Not that all Treasury employees were convinced by the argument, including some senior women – in contrast to younger women. “There was a disconnect. Senior women had succeeded in a strong male culture but younger females didn’t want it and thought it inhibited their abilities to advance,” he says.
“But because we are a department of problem solvers, one people recognise the problem and see the data . . . then the organisation clicked into gear and actually set about changing things.”
The usual solution, “mentoring”, didn’t work well at first. But Parkinson says it now has momentum.
Streaming women away
One of the surprises turned out to be that female entrants were often more mature and extroverted, meaning they were put in co-ordinating and people-oriented roles, rather than those focused on technical skills. Yet, when it came to later senior promotions, these women were not considered to have enough technical experience. Men, now more mature, had an inherent advantage.
“Because conceptual analytical skills are so important in Treasury and the culture likes that more than it should, we were actually implicitly streaming women away from these opportunities,” Parkinson says.
Other remedies were more explicit. Like setting a target of 35 per cent women in senior executive roles by 2016 and 40 per cent over the longer term. It is now at 33 per cent.
Parkinson agonised over this most of all, fearing a backlash. But he thinks men worried about their own promotion prospects have come to terms with it after analysis of the data.
For promotions, the gender split is reported in applications, people interviewed and the results. Interview committees no longer wait for people to put their hands up because “we know that guys are going to put their hands up first”.
None of this persuades everyone in Treasury. Nor will it convince critics more concerned about the reliability of economic estimates. But it’s whether the new secretary regards it as a frolic or real reform that will determine Parkinson’s legacy for women in Treasury. And elsewhere.
The Australian Financial Review