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Latest research into the under representation of women leaders in the Western Australian public sector conducted by the UWA Business School's Consortium for Diversity at Work (CDW) has identified the need for a more coordinated approach as the key to increasing the number of women leaders in the public sector. Key recommendations are the establishment of a ‘Women's Leadership Development Unit' and the appointment of a government Minister solely responsible for women's leadership development.
Jacquie Hutchinson and Associate Professor Joan Eveline, in a study commissioned by the Western Australian Office for Women's Policy, have confirmed what has been regularly noted within the WA business community; that there is a serious lack of female representation in senior public sector management positions.
Their research considered current trends in women's career development within the public and private sectors locally, nationally and internationally, along with an examination of all women's development programs currently taking place within the WA public sector.
Although the issue has been acknowledged by the State Government and many programs had been implemented in response to reports by the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, various weaknesses in programs have meant that the number of high-level women leaders has remained unacceptably low.
"The current approach to the development of women in leadership roles is uncoordinated, ad hoc and inefficient," Jacquie said.
This, she says, is consistent with a decline in leadership development generally, in part due to a lack of resources for training and development within the public sector, a situation which was noted by Western Australia's Department of Premier and Cabinet in 2004.
"Consequently, women's development has suffered both in terms of its importance to the sector and in the quality of the programs themselves," Jacquie said.
The report notes that reduced resources have led to mainstream leadership development schemes that aren't necessarily suited to women's specific needs.
But training and development is only part of the answer. If organisations want to attract and retain women leaders, they need to adopt a holistic approach that includes a focus on organisational culture and work/life balance, recruitment policies, reward and pay systems, networking and mentoring opportunities.
Unfortunately, the current ad hoc approach to addressing the problem has resulted in an inefficient use of resources and a limited capacity to build on the successes that have occurred. There have been a number of excellent initiatives in various parts of the public sector. These include the pay equity unit, the Gender Analysis of Policy (GAP) project, work/life initiatives and women in leadership development programs. However, these initiatives are rarely communicated or implemented sector wide.
The CDW report argues that the lack of a systematic and coordinated response to leadership development has resulted in a limited talent pool for leadership recruitment, therefore leaving Western Australia with the lowest representation of women at the top levels of public sector management in Australia.
To address the problem, the report recommends the implementation of a sector-wide leadership development framework to coordinate the planning, monitoring and evaluation of all initiatives. This will ensure that programs are effective, cost efficient and sustainable in the long term. This framework must address leadership development in its broadest sense, encompassing issues of diversity as well as gender.
Crucial to the success of such a framework would be designating a single Minister responsible for increasing women's representation at the most senior levels of public sector management in Western Australia. Ideally, the Minister would be supported by a single unit, whose role would be to coordinate, support and monitor the sector-wide implementation of the framework within individual agencies.
"The brief of the Unit would be to ensure there is a shared understanding of the framework and a transfer of skills and knowledge to individual agencies," Jacquie said.
The report also identified the importance of ongoing research into this area and the potential for partnerships with other states, business and the community. To this end, Jacquie and Joan also recommend the establishment of a high level Women's Leadership Development Planning Group, comprising various independent members. The group would be responsible for advising government, providing direction and being ambassadors of female leadership.
The group would include representatives from public, private and community sectors, along with research and education institutions. To ensure the appropriate targeting of future programs, the group's membership would be drawn from a range of backgrounds, including indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse groups.
Jacquie and Joan's findings and recommendations address an area of priority for the Western Australian public sector. Currently, a cross sector working party is developing a strategy to address the issues raised in this research.
The research has been identified as making a significant contribution to the enhancement of public sector leadership more broadly and the development of women's representation and gender diversity at the top levels of management, more specifically.