Smashing the barriers faced by female public sector leaders

Smashing the barriers faced by female public sector leaders

By Sue Williamson

This year I interviewed dozens of senior women public servants about their career aspirations. My findings shed light on the barriers women still experience to becoming senior leaders, and how these can be overcome.

Australia’s public sector is female-dominated, yet parity in the most senior leadership cohort is elusive. In 2021, women made up 60.2% of employees in the Australian Public Service but only comprised 44.6% of the most senior levels of senior executive service bands 2 and 3.

Statistics from state governments generally tell a similar story. While the number of women in leadership positions has been increasing, why has parity at the most senior levels not yet been achieved?

A wealth of research has examined the barriers to women attaining leadership positions in the public sector, including the most senior roles. These barriers include a lack of career development, difficulties integrating work and caring responsibilities, leadership cultures that exclude women and unconscious biases. Women’s lack of networking and access to senior decision-makers also contribute to the gender gap in leadership.

My research shows that while networking is crucial, exposure is just as important to enable women to progress to the most senior levels. About half of the women I interviewed wanted to progress; all had encountered some barriers. Two barriers were prominent: a lack of exposure to leaders and imposter syndrome.

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Barrier 1: Lack of exposure

Over the years, my colleagues and I have examined how the merit principle is applied in the public sector, and how ‘merit’ is accrued and assessed. My recent research shows that exposure is equated with being meritorious. In other words, being seen equals being competent. Exposure can therefore affect promotion opportunities.

Women leaders need exposure so that their work is known and they’re talked about favourably by senior leaders. However, exposure isn’t equally available to all. It’s more difficult to gain exposure in a line agency and female-dominated areas, such as human resources and corporate, tend to provide fewer exposure opportunities for women. Exposure comes through undertaking high-profile work, such as that involving a whole-of-government approach.

Sponsorship of women can rectify this situation somewhat. Requiring agency heads to report against KPIs and targets that measure how they have sponsored women can assist in overcoming women’s lack of exposure and visibility.

Additionally, formal and informal mobility programs have been shown to be a good form of career development, including for women. Moving around the public sector can increase visibility and exposure. However, interviewees told me that mobility was limited and sometimes difficult.

As with other industries, occupational segregation is endemic in the public sector, where women predominate in the ‘soft’ or enabling areas of agencies. Once streamed into these areas, it can be difficult for women to move into other, higher-profile areas, such as policy.

Sponsorship and mobility programs rely on targeting individual women — they are a ‘fix the woman’ approach. Researchers, including me, have identified that for gender equality to progress, including increasing the number of women in leadership, organisations need to be ‘degendered’.

In other words, human resource practices and systems, ways of working, communicating and relating in the workplace need to be reconfigured not to be based on an ‘ideal’ worker model. This model assumes the ideal worker is male, without caring responsibilities and able to work long hours.

Flexible working arrangements, job redesign to increase flexibility, and breaking down occupational segregation can all help to dismantle the ideal worker model.

Barrier 2: Imposter syndrome

International research shows 75% of women executives in North America have experienced imposter syndrome. What I’ve found, however, is that imposter syndrome is compounded: some of the women interviewees believed they were ‘lucky’ to have secured their senior position.

Others have also noted that women are more likely than men to attribute career success to ‘luck’ or being ‘in the right place at the right time’. This undermines their achievements and further indicates that women have doubts about their worth and may not believe they are meritorious. It’s also an internalised form of sexism — women consider they’re less meritorious than men and are, therefore, ‘lucky’ when they secure a coveted, senior position.

Traditional methods to alleviate imposter syndrome target individuals, including increasing women’s confidence through sending them on courses. Appropriately recognising women’s performance would go some way towards overcoming imposter syndrome. Researchers, however, have also found that even when women perform better than men, their performance and potential are underrated.

A systemic approach would see imposter syndrome overcome through inclusive workplace cultures that embrace a range of leadership styles — not those traditionally associated with ‘masculine’ leadership. Inclusive leadership training at all levels can assist in this endeavour.

These solutions adopt a ‘bottom-up’ approach by focusing on individual women and preparing them to move upwards. A ‘top-down’ approach is also needed. This goes to the issue of whether appointing more women to senior roles has a ‘trickle-down’ effect that can increase the number of women at the feeder level to senior levels.

Research has found that the trickle-down effect works in the public sector. It’s most effective within the first two years of appointing women to senior roles. Researchers have found that a 10% increase in women public sector executives led to a 5% increase in women in the executive feeder group. This impact held until women made up 45% of executives.

The data shows that women are progressing through the leadership ranks in the public sector. Stubborn barriers remain, however, highlighting the shifting contours of gender inequality.

A systemic approach to progressing women in leadership offers the best way forward, with a focus on both bottom-up and top-down strategies.

*Sue Williamson is an associate professor of Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra

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