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Threading the needle - Women in Local Government

16 Feb 2021

2010 was the Year of Women in Local Government in Australia.  At that time, it was clear that women were well underrepresented in senior ranks of the sector despite making up slightly more than half of the workforce.  During the course of the year, a range of activities were undertaken across the country to engage with councils and individuals in an effort to identify barriers and opportunities.

There were mixed views expressed about what the problem was and what contributing factors may be at play, and even the extent to which a problem existed.  Was it a glass ceiling or a sticky floor?  Are women their own worst enemies and the ‘fault’ lies with them?  Are leaders ‘threatened’ by women’s mysterious ways and deliberately sabotaging their careers?  Is it all unconscious bias where you promote people who are familiar?

A majority view at the time amongst senior officers was that the issue was one of nascency – i.e. the hard yards had been done, barriers removed and it was just a matter of time before the women who benefited from those changes moved through the ranks into senior roles.  Similarly, the tipping point theory was espoused which says that once you reach 30% of women on council in the elected body or in the senior management group, more will follow at greater rates.

Ten years on and not much has changed – neither theory has panned out. 

Yes, there are pockets of improvement; there are councils who have made it their mission to ensure women are supported and encouraged into senior roles and have done so successfully.  But across the state, there continues to a discrepancy in percentage of women moving up the line.

Partly, this is because there is no silver bullet.  There are many factors at play and any change takes sustained effort.  Like the diet pill, we tend to look for the quick fix and our processes demand ‘evidence’ of impact in order to support continued investment.  If the impacts are cumulative over time, good initiatives can be dropped because they do not show immediate success. 

IT WAS CLEAR THAT WOMEN WERE WELL UNDERREPRESENTED IN SENIOR RANKS OF THE SECTOR DESPITE MAKING UP SLIGHTLY MORE THAN HALF OF THE WORKFORCE.

In speaking to women across local government there are, as you would expect, mixed views and positions.

Of course, in order to talk about this matter in a short article, generalisations and simplifications must be made.  That is not to stereotype positions or people and it is not to suggest anyone should hold a particular view; it is merely to illuminate some of the factors at play in order to generate thought discussion and, potentially, action.

Some senior women are keen not to ‘buy in’ to the discussion – they will agree that they have experienced some challenges but that they were confident in themselves and pushed through.  They are adamant that they not be ‘handed anything’ on the basis of gender.

Others talk about not ‘having what it takes’ to be a senior leader in local government.  When questioned further, this is based on the fact that they do not see anyone around who leads in a manner which they feel they could emulate.  The lack of role models who offer diverse leadership styles is at the crux of this issue.  This continues to be a key impediment across the sector.

Also at play is a different exposure to council business and politics.  Women tend to approach work in a different manner than their male counterparts. [Generalisation alert! Ed.]  There is less time spent on networking or self-promotion (the debate about the extent to which this is nature or nurture is a topic for another publication) and accordingly tend to be highly focussed on their own roles and less visible outside their area of expertise, and often even within their area.

And this is exacerbated in councils where the dynamic around the council chamber is sub-optimal.  In these cases, many CEOs will seek to ‘protect’ their less experienced staff from the vagaries of council discussion which, whilst well intentioned, can limit exposure and confidence.

Confidence is another challenge and links to both of the above points (role models and exposure).  Importantly, it is also a factor of the unconscious bias that occurs across our workplaces.  While terms like ‘mansplaining’ (Macquarie Dictionary’s Aussie word of the year in 2014) and manterrupting, are now common parlance and most officers understand the concepts they seek to convey, old habits die hard and change is difficult.  For an individual, changing your approach in meetings, the way you speak and put forward ideas, is neither simple nor quick.  It can be supported by a meeting chair who directs conversation flow deliberately to ensure that quieter members (male or female) are not talked over.  (It should be noted that the benefits of shifting these dynamics is not just of benefit to those women who struggle to get a word in but to any of the more introverted members of the group).

THE CHALLENGE IS THAT THE BARRIERS HAVE BEEN IN PLACE LONG BEFORE A WOMAN REACHES THE POINT WHERE SHE FEELS SHE CAN APPLY.

Statistics tell us that women continue to bear the majority of the caring load at home and although this is not the responsibility of our workplaces (except when it comes to flexibility and pay gap), it does mean that women can struggle to put in those extra activities that make them visible.  Most women interviewed  try to hide their working late or taking stuff home rather than promoting it, as if it is a dirty secret that somehow makes them lesser as parents, workers or partners. 

Probably the most prevalent reason given for women not making it into senior ranks in council that was provided by senior leaders during 2010 was that “they just won’t apply for the roles.  But when they do, they are more likely to be appointed” (more likely than the male candidates).  This is the case, on a percentage basis, fewer females apply but a higher proportion of female applicants than male are actually appointed.  The challenge is that the barriers have been in place long before a woman reaches the point where she feels she can apply.  These include access to education (while working), flexibility in the workplace (which the 2020 experience may  have debunked to some extent), access to a professional network, exposure to the wider organisation and the politics, lack of role models and gender biased activities. 

DIVERSITY OF GENDER HAS BEEN CLEARLY SHOWN TO LEAD TO BETTER DECISION MAKING BY ORGANISATIONS – AND THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE OF FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT AND LEADERSHIP DURING A CRISIS.

In case it is not clear, all of this does matter.  Diversity of gender has been clearly shown to lead to better decision making by organisations – and this is especially true of financial management and leadership during a crisis.  In the case of local governments, a council which lacks gender diversity in its leadership team is not representative of the community and will struggle to assess all community needs when making decisions.

Different players in the sector have been picking away at this for the last decade.  In some states, the issue is front of mind and many councils are actively undertaking a range of long-term initiatives to create change.  In Queensland, the issue is much less front of mind, perhaps on the back of an influx of female elected members at the 2016 election, high turnover of CEOs and a generally disrupted sector.  This dearth of action is evident in the Awards for Excellence whereby the Women in Local Government award was amended to a diversity award after three years of almost no nominations.  The diversity award went the same way after two unsuccessful years.  (That is not to say no councils are active, but they are certainly not in the majority).

The great thing about seeking to tackle this issue in 2021, is that so much work has been done across other sectors.  Local government does not need to reinvent the wheel, when it comes to impacting factors.  Local government experiences exactly the same challenges as other sectors and organisations and can therefore learn from what others have done.   A work in progress for sure but it is the progress that matters.

1. Statistics across Australian business sectors rather than local government specific



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