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May 30, 2018
by Maryam Ghaddar
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Martin Parkinson- “We Made Gender Equality a Core Business Responsibility”

Secretary of Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia discusses the journey towards reaching gender parity in Australia Martin Parkinson speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

Sometimes, the most significant accomplishments come about as happy accidents. For Martin Parkinson, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, this happened when trying to understand how to drive for gender parity in Australia.

Parkinson attended this year’s annual meeting of the Public Sector Strategy Network - Mechanics for the Future: How Can Governments Transform Themselves? – held in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and in cooperation with Apolitical. This multi-year initiative offers a platform for governments and innovators to explore significant challenges, risks, and opportunities for change in their countries and societies.

As secretary of the Department, Parkinson is the principal policy advisor to the Prime Minister on all issues, primarily responsible for coordinating policy development across government.

One of these issues was achieving gender equality at top positions in Australia, something the senior public servant referred to as “a personal journey” which started in the early 90s. At that time, he explained, he was a senior executive in the Treasury leading macroeconomic analysis and forecasting inside the department. He left in 1997 for the International Monetary Fund after an initial attempt to “show that there’s no job anywhere in the department that women aren’t able to do.”

“We had reached parity in terms of a greater recruitment by the early 1990s. We could look around the department and see women in all key areas, the exception being the area that I moved in to run. By 1997 we had strong cohorts even in this area and I was confident we were in a good position. When I came back in the beginning of 2001, almost all of them had gone… it was clear then that something hadn’t taken root… Maybe part of the issue was that we didn’t have enough senior role models.”

Throughout the many transitions of his career, Parkinson was steadfast in his mission, always thinking outside the box and recruiting senior women who could develop the necessary skillsets. When he was appointed to establish the first department of climate change in 2007, he brought together people from different parts of government.

“Without setting out consciously to do it, I ended up in a situation where I had three deputies who were male, and the next level down, there were 13 people, 12 of whom were women. I hadn’t at all set out to do that but what was clear was that we were having different styles of conversations, though the technical content was similar. But what came out of that for me was a dawning realization that what we’d done is we’d focused on symptoms, not on root causes.”

When he returned to Treasury he realized his department had been putting young women in coordinating, outward-facing roles, whereas the young men were placed in technical, backroom-type positions. Consequently, women weren’t being given many chances to demonstrate their conceptual, analytic skills for the performance appraisal. Parkinson added “the young males were in jobs we implicitly valued more than the others.”

Parkinson described a scenario in his career where a group of mixed senior executives were assembled with women on one side of the room and men on the other. Each group was asked to write down on a piece of paper ten reasons why they thought women didn’t succeed in making it to senior ranks of the Treasury. The two sheets were then brought together, much like a Venn diagram.

“How much overlap do you think there was? Zero. Absolutely zero. Women and men were looking at this problem in a completely different way to one another, and so had no common ground on which to start to challenge the issue. So we made gender equality a core business responsibility of the Treasury, and I was then very public about it.”

Parkinson became a member of the Male Champions of Change, mobilizing the department and raising the public consequences of failure. They addressed interview committees, telling them their job was to go out and search for the best pool of people to interview, to do everything in their power to “find strong women candidates, to have a 50-50 if not, why not” approach to gender parity. They published all pay and performance appraisal outcomes by gender and level, the proportion of female applicants for roles, those who went on to interview, and finally success rates.

By allowing this data to be torn apart and scrutinized, “the place embraced it… and they essentially owned the problem… The other thing that the government did which was very good was to make a commitment to having a minimum of 40 percent women on individual government boards… and we’re aiming for 50 percent on average across all boards.”

The senior official then conveyed a common thread that ran through discussions at this session in Salzburg, which was the importance of trying to innovate and then, if necessary, “failing fast” and conceding defeat early to stop resources from continuing to be wasted if an attempt to innovate isn’t delivering. Parkinson said neglecting to take risks and innovate systems leads to a decline in community expectations of government and “governments will be seen as less and less relevant.”

“Governments, as a beast, are pretending that we can solve problems that we can’t… We’re giving people a false sense that we can resolve all problems… the system is never going to be perfect, and there’s going to be some mistakes made inevitably… and we’re not having a sufficiently nuanced discussion about it… there [are] very few people who are stepping back and looking back at government as an ecosystem.”

Parkinson expressed a profound commitment to “making life better for people.” By acknowledging this, he encapsulated his entire philosophy into one sentence: “Never lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, the objective here is to leave the place better off for your fellow citizens.”


 

Mechanics for the Future: How Can Governments Transform Themselves? is part of the Public Sector Strategy Network, a multi-year initiative held in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and in cooperation with Apolitical. More information on this session can be found here.