Year of Women in Local Government

Article image - Year of Women in Local Government The cover of Randwick City Council’s Transparency magazine: special gender issue, March 2010.

Call for greater gender balance in councils

Chair of the National Steering Committee of the Year of Women in Local Government, Ray Pincombe, said that the Local Government sector will require an innovative workforce to drive change over the next two decades. He was speaking at the opening session of the 2010 Local Government Managers Australia’s (LGMA’s) National Congress and Expo held in Adelaide from 16 to 19 May.

“Through equity and equality we will achieve the best use of our people for the benefit of the communities we serve,” Ray Pincombe said.

He said that Local Government sustainability is very much about not charging communities very much more to deliver the increasing services they want and expect.

“With the current skills shortage, the pressure is back on us to obtain the workforce we need,” he said. “Together with dealing with issues of climate change and an ageing population, we need the leadership skills to meet these growing demands.

“In this regard women are under utilised both as elected members and council officers.”

Emphasising beginning with the merit principle, he called on all councils to create a work environment where everyone has equal opportunity.

Currently across Local Government 20 per cent of senior management positions are held by women and only seven per cent of General Managers/CEOs are women.

“Provide support for women and men so they have equal opportunity to step up and take on the challenges of the future through flexible workplaces that recognise different requirements for men and women during their working lives,” he said.

He said that the various initiatives and programs during this, the Year of Women in Local Government, are not just about 2010 but an ongoing process that will move Local Government forward.

Ruth Medd, Chair of Women on Boards, spoke at the Women in Local Government Networking Breakfast held during the Congress.

She said that gender diversity in the workplace and on boards has become a ‘hot issue’ on the national agenda.

Women on Boards is a social enterprise that aims to increase gender diversity on boards. It currently has 8,000 women in its high profile network who are actively seeking directorship roles.

“Don’t be misled by the mantra that increasing numbers of women are working,” Ruth Medd said. “Hours worked by married women in Australia, the US, UK and Sweden are respectively 46, 57, 62 and 75 per cent of those of married men. Australia is at the bottom of the list.”

She said that we do poorly because of the disincentives for women to work, such as the cost of childcare, structure of the tax system,
lack of after school care, lack of true flexibility in workplaces, and lack of incentives for women to return to work after absences.

“Policies that discourage female labour supply not only have a negative effect on tax revenues but also have negative effects on productivity,” she said. “The bottom line is that women will continue to earn less, get promoted slower and generally be less successful in their careers unless things change. It’s sex discrimination and stereotypes at work.”

She said that it is not about hiring women just for the sake of hiring women but about organisations achieving a competitive edge by tapping into this under utilised talent pool.

To mark the Year of Women in Local Government, LGMA’s Australasian Management Challenge required the 128 teams competing in 2010, in a prechallenge exercise, to come up with strategies to improve gender equity within their council.

The best three teams – Randwick (NSW), Boroondara (Victoria) and Mundaring (Western Australia) – were invited to present their findings and strategies at a session during the Congress. Teams collected data on the gender breakdown of their council’s workforce and elected members and then came up with action plans to remove barriers enabling women to be involved, and more successful in achieving senior management positions.

The Boroondara team said it is proud of its current gender diversity, with 45 per cent of senior management positions held by women
but at the same time believes Council can’t rest on its laurels.

The team said more can be done to build the confidence of female staff to seek leadership positions through mentoring, performance reviews and enhancement processes, taking up secondments and filling acting roles.

It identified the importance of work/life balance for both elected members and staff, with more flexibility, fewer night meetings and job sharing opportunities. It recommended a 50/50 gender balance for interview panels and said that childcare is an issue for parents, not just women. All staff need more flexible work practices to allow scope for studying, caring for older relatives and staggered retirement.

At Randwick Council, the team found that 87 per cent of staff believed that Council has family friendly policies. However, there is not as much flexibility for senior managers, with less opportunity to work from home. They said being an employer of choice means providing a workplace where staff can be both leaders and effective parents. Council needs to market itself as a flexible workplace where gender equality is respected and appreciated.

Mundaring’s team found that although 67 per cent of Council staff are women, they are largely in traditional roles, such as children’s services, personal assistants and customer services, where there is not as much scope for promotion as in other areas.

Women are also more likely to be part time, while males work full time; it is harder to take on acting roles if working part time. The team found that women often did not wish to take on higher duties due to after hours meetings and lack of confidence. It believes that women acting as role models and mentors would increase their confidence.

Family friendly work practices enable women to take on higher duties and men to be more involved with their family.

It recommended a parent led after school crèche, part time managers through job sharing, daytime council meetings, recruitment campaigns and a study pack for high school teachers.