15 December 2021

Flexible work push in new APS Gender Strategy

| Ian Bushnell
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Kate Jenkins

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect@Work report should guide agencies to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and bullying. Photo: AHRC.

Australian Public Service agencies have been given a long to-do list to improve their gender equality performance and have been warned not to be complacent on the issue.

The Australian Public Service Commission has launched Realising the Benefits for all: APS Gender Equality Strategy 2021-26, which includes a range of actions, including greater access to flexible work arrangements, a review of parental leave, making it easier for new mothers to breastfeed at work, and doing more to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and bullying.

This strategy is the culmination of a partnership between the APSC and the Office for Women, in conjunction with extensive consultation across the APS, academia and the private sector.

It builds on the previous Balancing the Future: Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2016–19.

A joint statement from APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott and Secretary, Prime Minister and Cabinet Philip Gaetjens said the APS could be proud of steady and lasting improvements in gender equality since the lifting of the Marriage Bar in 1966.

“Women now represent 50 per cent of the Senior Executive Service for the first time and our gender pay gap has continued to trend down to the current 6.6 per cent,” they said.

“Nevertheless, we must not become complacent. There is more that we can do, and our challenge is to maintain momentum and sustain progress. Gender equality, and our broader diversity and inclusion objectives, must continue to be prioritised.”

They said the strategy provided a flexible framework to enable agency-level conversations and targeted actions.

“We must continue to break down stereotypes and shift gender norms to provide a respectful, safe and inclusive culture in the workplace,” they said.

“The strategy highlights the responsibility of leaders at all levels to hold themselves and others to account for demonstrating gender-equitable and inclusive behaviour.”

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The Public Service Minister Ben Morton may want staff back in the office, but the strategy says agencies will review flexible work policies and practices so they can provide a mix of working in the office and at other locations, expand job sharing and provide additional flexibility for parents with school-aged children and those with caring responsibilities.

It also calls for greater training for managers, including people management, so they are equipped to lead flexible teams, ensure employees are not working longer hours than necessary, and balance competing priorities.

They should also be talking to part-time employees about increasing their hours, using a combination of flexible work arrangements to increase women’s workforce participation in particular.

Agencies are also urged to support new parents in line with the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2019 and Beyond, including seeking accreditation as a ‘Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace’.

The APSC will review APS-wide parental leave provisions to create more flexible parental leave entitlements to enable a greater choice for parents and enable more equitable sharing of caring responsibilities.

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The strategy says agencies should strengthen approaches to preventing and responding to bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace, including taking on board the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report to develop improved policy, guidance, transparency, reporting and support mechanisms.

In a bid to break gender stereotyping, agencies should create opportunities to strengthen gender representation in select occupations such as STEM areas.

As part of building a broader database, the APSC will develop a strategic research plan to better understand gender dynamics in the APS workforce in collaboration with APS agencies.

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