Mehreen Faruqi: The public service must show leadership on workplace gender equality

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Mehreen Faruqi

Challenged the privilege claim over several documents: Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi.

Challenged the privilege claim over several documents: Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi. Photo: Brendan Esposito

In the last few years there has been a big focus on women in leadership, or the lack thereof.

As a nation, we've had conversations about how to increase the number of women on corporate boards, in senior management and in parliaments to make progress towards gender equality at work.

Suggested solutions have encompassed setting quotas and targets as well as the need for systemic social and structural change, while the tired old argument of meritocracy ("if you're good enough, you'll get there, trust me!") is also still being rolled out.

While opinions continue to clash on the value or effectiveness of mandatory quotas, voluntary targets, or an awareness of 'unconscious bias', the gender pay gap keeps widening. In Australia, this gap now stands at almost 19%, the highest it has been in recent time.

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Much of the discussion around gender disparity in the workplace, both in pay and senior leadership roles, does however focus on the corporate sector and the boardroom. There have been numerous calls for CEOs to make gender equity core business, for corporations to change culture and openly and transparently report on gender and pay.

Perhaps there is an assumption that because of the more transparent nature of the public sector and prevalence of collective workplace agreements, these issues are less relevant. Indeed, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's gender pay gap statistics (September 2015), the pay gap within the public sector is smaller (12.2%) compared to the private sector (21.3%). But this statistic only tells part of the story of what's actually going on.

Here in NSW, the 2015 State of the NSW Public Sector report published just last month reveals two thirds of the 300,000 employees are women, but only one-third are in senior positions. Dig a little deeper and you find that in every single one of the ten public service clusters (except Family and Community Services), the percentage of men in the highest income brackets is much higher than the percentage of women, and the gap increases as the pay scale rises.

The worst offenders are the traditionally male-dominated areas of Transport, Finance and Industry.

As the Greens spokesperson for Transport, and a self-confessed engineering tragic, I wasn't satisfied until I further unpacked the state of gender affairs in the various departments that make up this cluster.

The 2015 annual reports of Sydney Trains and State Transit Authority (STA) show both have abysmal representation of women. STA remains extremely male-heavy; despite a 50% women workforce target, employment of women at STA has been falling each year since 2013, and only 5.9% of bus drivers are women. Alarmingly, only one of the 18 senior STA staff is a woman. A very similar story unfolds at Sydney Trains.

Even in a workplace like Transport for NSW, where women make up almost half of the workforce, there are clear discrepancies in pay and responsibilities afforded to men versus women. Women comprise over 60% of the workers earning less than $100,000 annually, and only 34% of those earning over $100,000. There are only 22% of women at senior service levels.

Having spent many years working in the engineering profession, I am no stranger to the lack of women in these environments, but to see such stark differences in pay and position distribution in the public service in this day and age has shocked me.

While it's necessary for politicians to call out company boards for lack of women, the public service shouldn't be immune to similar criticism. If politicians' own departments are failing to even come close to their gender equality targets, what hope do we have of making change in the private sector? The public service should be leading on gender equality in the workplace.

For the rapidly approaching New Year, it's my challenge to Premier Mike Baird and Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian to push for NSW Government agencies and departments to make gender equality in the workplace a priority and ensure that our 320,000+ strong public sector employs and promotes women at all levels of service.

Equality targets should be ambitious, with a concrete plan for meeting them. Unconscious bias should not be taken as theoretical, but factual. Poor workplace culture and practices should not be dismissed as "just the way things are", but challenged.

Above all, public sector gender equality should not be seen as just a good idea, but as an essential and important reform we need to realise together.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a Greens MP in NSW Parliament and the spokesperson for Transport and the status of women.