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3 months ago By Emily Harris
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As we celebrate International Women's Day for 2022, this year’s campaign focus is on 'breaking the bias' and examines how bias and stereotyping can have a negative impact on workplace diversity and particularly for women – can hinder their ability to progress their career. While we know the benefits diversity provides an organisation, from innovation to staff retention, it’s a complex and nuanced issue to navigate and there are many organisations that can find it difficult to manage. However, especially in Local Government, being able to instil a diverse workforce and culture is not just imperative for the effectiveness of overall Council operations, but it’s also critical to ensure Local Councils can best serve their community, as each community is made up of a diverse range of individuals who all have different needs that must be understood and met.

This is why we speak to the Chief People and Culture Officer at City of Darebin Council Sarah Noel, on the initiatives the Local Council employs to foster and maintain a diverse workplace and culture (especially in regards to their recruitment processes) and why workplace diversity is such an important part of an organisation’s overall culture. Considering gender equality is such a topical issue within Local Government, Sarah also discusses the ways City of Darebin Council ensures equal development opportunities are presented to both men and women and the ways we can actively combat unconscious bias and stereotyping within the workforce, which can often act as barriers for women entering leadership roles within an organisation.

Read Sarah’s answers below: 

Why do you think diversity within an organisation’s workforce is so important – for Local Councils especially? 

Diversity is important to all organisations. In a Council setting, it is about having a workforce that reflects the community we serve. Valuing and investing in programs to support diversity and build a diverse workforce results in a stronger organisation with deeper capability, one that is less likely to be prone to confirmation bias. A diverse workforce can change the way organisations think, respond and engage with customers and the community.

What role does the People and Culture department at City of Darebin play in creating and fostering a diverse workplace and culture (within the Council)? 

The People and Culture department is responsible for key plans and strategies supporting workforce diversity activities. These include the Workforce Plan, Gender Equality Action Plan and Workforce Diversity Inclusion Strategy. The actions in each of these strategies are translated into operational areas of People and Culture throughout the employee lifecycle – from recruitment, onboarding, learning and development to succession planning. Our role is to challenge thinking that excludes people and to challenge unconscious bias. We also manage and oversee a policy framework that supports a great culture, which includes diversity.

How important does the recruitment process play in creating a diverse workforce? What practices do City of Darebin take part in (in addition to using a recruiting agency) to ensure they’re contributing to a diverse and inclusive workforce? 

The recruitment process is an important part of attracting a diverse workforce. Last year we reviewed our recruitment policy and training and incorporated training around unconscious bias into the training. Our recruitment panels are required to have gender diversity, and consideration will also be given to other diversity on the panel such as age. If we are recruiting for an identified position, then additional consideration will be given to the panel make-up based on the specifics of the identified position.

More broadly we need to continue to work towards cultural value add rather than cultural fit. Cultural fit can be used to exclude people or result in hiring people who have similar experiences and think the way we do, and we can end up with groupthink. We need to hire people for their cultural value add which includes diversity of thought and experience.

The representation of female leaders within government hasn’t traditionally been strong in Australia. How does City of Darebin attract women to join the organisation? Especially in regards to leadership positions?

When using external recruitment firms (which we often do for senior positions) one of the factors in considering which firm to appoint is their ability to attract a diverse candidate pool. This is not just about gender. It considers the intersectionality requirements of the Gender Equality Act 2020. So, for example, we understand that while women may be underrepresented in leadership roles in local government, that disparity is greater for women of colour, women with a disability or women who identify as LGBTIQ+, or women from a CALD background. 

How does City of Darebin advertise and communicate leadership and development opportunities to employees within the organisation? What initiatives does the organisation use that ensures opportunities are accessible to everyone?

Our recruitment policy is clear about the requirement to advertise roles internally. This is part of a weekly update and staff can see opportunities that may be available for up to six months. Internal opportunities have a big focus on flexibility, and overtly state that part-time or school hours can be an option. That provides opportunities for women to act at higher levels or in different organisational functions. 

In relation to leadership programs, it is about considering barriers to participation early. One example of this is our team for the Local Government Management Challenge in 2022. We have part-time staff participating and while planning and preparing for the regional round of the challenge we came across challenges relating to their availability. Two-thirds of that team are women and their schedules had to be considered when organising and coordinating the challenge. 

How significant a role do you think workplace flexibility plays in gender equality in the workplace? What sets City of Darebin apart?

I think that workplace flexibility is important for everyone, and the information we have gained as a result of remote working over the last two years shows that. Workplace flexibility does assist in reducing barriers that can create gender inequality in the workplace, but it is not the whole answer. At Darebin, we have a flexible work policy that provides for flexible working from day one. It’s a common question from candidates and being able to offer that makes sure we are not losing great candidates from our talent pool over that issue. 

Why do you think working in Local Council can be a great career path for young women?  

There is such a diversity of positions for women to work in Council. There is an opportunity to positively impact community outcomes through the delivery of the Council Plan. Another great thing about Council is the opportunity to work in different areas through acting opportunities. Before I moved into Local Government, I had no idea of the breadth of roles and services.

Do you have any career advice for women looking to develop their career within Government – especially within Local Government? 

Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Develop your networks, both within your current Council and at other Councils. Something I have learned during my time in Local Government is to make resources part of the discussion whenever I am asked to take on additional projects or functions. Speak with your manager or leader about how they are supporting you to be set up for success. If you see an opportunity you are interested in, then don’t think you have to tick 100% of the criteria. Speak with the hiring manager about what is most important to do the role effectively.

While I am pleased to see more female CEOs since I started in the sector it is still skewed more towards men. That can sometimes result in an all-male recruitment panel for senior roles and unconscious bias can then disadvantage women who are hoping to move to second and third level positions. Women need to see themselves when they look at management and executive teams in Councils. If you are looking at opportunities in Council, have a look at the executive and management teams. Are they diverse? 

How does City of Darebin encourage and promote diversity within their local community – especially in regards to gender diversity? Are there any recent initiatives or projects you could provide as examples?

There is great work in this space being delivered through a number of departments. Darebin’s work to encourage and promote diversity and promote gender equity is delivered through the Towards Equality Framework and the Gender Equity and Preventing violence Against Women Action Plan. This plan places gender at the centre of Council’s efforts to prevent violence against women but will be implemented with the understanding that all efforts to address gender inequality and violence against women cannot be done in isolation from work to address racism, poverty and other forms of inequality.

Council is a key supporter in the Victorian Government's Change Our Game campaign and support services to help increase female leadership and participation in sport. Darebin City Council is proud to partner with the Darebin Women's Sports Club on a 'Promoting Women and Girls in Sport' partnership agreement. This involves Council support for the Darebin Falcons VFLW team through until 2022, as well as support for women and girls participation, leadership, and gender equality advocacy in their sporting operations.

Are there any exciting upcoming projects City of Darebin are working on right now that you would like to share? 

Council is undertaking to gender-sensitive safety audits to ensure women’s perceptions and experiences of safety in the public realm inform safety upgrades. A number of workshops were held recently with staff across the transport planning, parks and urban design team to apply gender-sensitive design in their work. 

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