Gender diversity has been a focus for the public sector over the last few years; in 2016 the Australian Government set a target of women holding 50% of Australian Government board positions overall, and at least 40% representation of women and 40% representation of men on individual boards. By June 30 2017, women held 42.7% of Australian Government board positions – the highest outcome since public reporting on the gender balance of Government boards began in 2011. Furthermore, the most recent statistics by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has recorded that as of 2018-2019 the female leadership representation within the public sector has improved from 2017-2018, with women occupying 48.6% of senior leadership roles and outnumbering men in middle management roles (52.2%) for the second consecutive year.
The ABS also reported that as of January 1st 2020 there was equal representation between men and women parliamentarians in the Senate- the first time this has happened in Australia’s history. Furthermore, as of June 30th 2020, 37% of Commonwealth Justices and Judges were women, the highest proportion over the past decade. These milestones are reassuring, as female representation within the public sector has proven benefits for the wider community. Gender equity – especially within government- reflects and dictates what is found in the community it supports and represents and consequently needs to model best practice. Research from global consulting firm McKinsey & Company has also indicated that having more women on boards translates into increased levels of organisational performance and brings a more balanced perspective and approach to problem-solving. For governments, these findings indicate greater efficiency and innovation within departments, which hypothetically would mean they could achieve more for their community. Not to mention positive gender equity policies make an organisation a more competitive employer.
While the work and visible progress towards gender equity the public sector has been making is positive, the work isn’t over yet. The global pandemic has put organisations at work, with women globally disproportionately impacted by COVID due to the pressures of juggling work and home. And as highlighted above, the public sector has a huge influence over local communities and consequently must lead by example through continuing to build visibility and influence for women in government. Especially in relation to local government whereas of 2018, 32.8% of Australian councillors were women and only 15% of mayors and shire presidents across Australia were women.
Moving Forward: Mentorships & Sponsorships As A Development Tool
In Public Sector’s own research on retaining and attracting employers, it has become apparent that making professional development a priority is highly valued among employees. Over the last few months, Public Sector People and Design & Build have been conducting surveys amongst our database of over 55,000 professionals within rail, construction, engineering, property and government around what drew them to organisations and what they valued most from their employer. Interestingly, among the female survey respondents, a lack of opportunities was a key reason they left an organisation. When considering the current stats around women in leadership positions, this reasoning isn’t surprising with female representation at management levels the lowest within companies across the board. However, 74% of female respondents also said the potential for career progression and development opportunities was the key thing they sought out when job hunting.
When pressed further amongst female respondents on what professional development strategies and initiatives they found valuable, many mentioned mentorships and sponsorships. There have been numerous studies across industries and occupations that show the benefits role modelling and mentorships provide to an individual’s career development. Having a trusted advisor or colleague who’s had a career you wish to emulate, can act as a sounding board for your ideas or any career challenges you’re facing. Role models and mentors also act as a guide, giving you a clear idea or ‘path’ to follow and model your own decisions off. Even just observing their behaviour can become an effective learning tool for many professionals just starting out in their own career.
Indeed, within the public sector, many organisations have started building and developing mentorship and sponsorship programs within their organisations to help grow and foster young women’s careers – especially in local and state government. After all, women can’t be what they can’t see, or know the true potential within a career if those before them haven’t pushed the boundaries or limits. Studies by the organisation Girledworld- which focuses on running mentorship programs for Australian girls aged 15-18- found that frame of reference for women and especially younger girls just embarking on their professional career, is important. Workplace mentors can make a disproportionate difference to the lives of girls because they open them to different professional possibilities and cultivate their mindsets and skillsets.
Similarly, the Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WEGA) has done a deep dive into the mentoring relationships organisations have developed over time as a gender equality initiative. Their research indicated that initiatives that focus on proactive instrumental help to advance a person’s career ( training, career references etc.) helped to accelerate the careers of high performers and helped individuals meet the unique challenges of executive roles. This form of mentorship has been identified as ‘sponsorship’, to distinguish from the more traditional mentorship styles which are more ‘relationship based’ and offer mentees more generalised advice and support. These traditional mentorships still have a place, however, with WEGA identifying that each female participant who was involved in relationship-based mentorships had a higher rate of job satisfaction. Consequently, their research indicates that both styles of mentorship programs are beneficial to improving female representation amongst organisations and retaining female talent.
Implementing Sponsorship or Mentoring In The Workplace
To help guide government organisations looking to implement or improve their mentorship offerings, WEGA suggests the following steps:
Focus on Design
Identify areas of the business that would benefit most from sponsorship/mentoring activities and consider at which levels a program would be of most benefit. Is there an organisation that is in particular need of help? Is there a well-performing area that could provide guidance? Contemplate broader outcomes- for example, would the development of cross-functional relationships help to broaden networks and increase knowledge sharing across boundaries?
Think about your organisational context- can it support the career progress of women?
When initiatives such as mentoring or training are implemented with the intention to improve gender equality, they have been shown to be more effective when the core organisation structures support diversity initiatives more broadly. Consider what other initiatives your organisation already has in place. How will your planned mentorship initiatives align with or support these other initiatives? What is the track record of your other gender initiatives- how were they received by employees? Considering these factors, when developing your mentorship program will help to ensure the program is more effective and tailored to the organisation. It’s also important to remember that sponsorship and mentorship programs won’t necessarily lead to better outcomes in gender equity on their own, but will make a significant contribution to the organisation’s overall gender equality framework.
Mentorship relationships are mutually beneficial
The concept of ‘reverse mentoring’ is becoming more widely known, where the sponsor or mentor can also develop their involvement in the relationship. This is particularly useful within gender equality, as a woman may be able to provide her male sponsor with particular insights of which he may otherwise have been unaware. It’s also important to note that studies have shown the majority of women don’t consider gender to be necessarily relevant or important in regards to mentorships. While seeing female leaders within a company is encouraging for women, ultimately having a seasoned and experienced person within their industry to provide advice, introduce them to people and monitor their progress (man or women). will make women feel supported and a valuable part of the organisation.
Articulate and Communicate The Intended Outcomes Of The Program
For the greatest effect, a mentorship program’s stated outcomes should be linked to strategy and business imperatives. Is it to retain female talent or to improve equity in promotions and pay? Does it encompass other diversity initiatives, or is it just to address gender inequality? Understanding what you hope to achieve in terms of clear objectives is key to the success of any gender equality program.
Ensure that sufficient support and resources are available and that they are available to all
Having good training, support and resources available are vital to the success of these initiatives. Furthermore, sponsorship and mentoring are not exclusive to the advancement of women. They are strategies to accelerate the careers of high-performing individuals, regardless of gender. However, they can also be implemented as part of a broader strategy for achieving greater female representation within senior management positions.