Middle managers are key to gender equality — they just don’t know it

Sue Williamson | 14 Sep 2018

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This is as an extract from a piece originally published on Apolitical.

Around the world, countries are taking the gender makeup of their public sectors ever more seriously. However, to really accelerate change, one unsuspecting group must become more central to diversity and equality strategies: middle managers.

That’s a finding of a new study of the Australian civil service, for which my colleagues and I spoke with almost 300 public sector middle managers.

We found that they’re committed to increasing gender equity in their workplaces and often implement promising policies and strategies. But many lack the understanding, time and resources to really implement procedures that are known to be best practice, from flexible working to gender-sensitive hiring.

Middle managers will be key to ensuring that public sector workplaces become more equal and inclusive — but for them to play this role, they need greater knowledge and support in three main areas.

How can we hire on merit and diversity at the same time?

The first is how the principle of merit interacts with recruiting for diversity. While all managers were committed to employing “the best person for the job”, conceptions of how merit is constructed and how merit and gender intersect are at a low level.

Merit is an underpinning tenet of public sector employment, yet one which is gendered. Merit accrues through working on high profile projects, which are granted to those who are “visible” in the workplace and have access to important networks. Female employees are more likely to work part-time than male employees and therefore have less visibility and access to important career development opportunities and networks.

One way to raise understanding of the gendered nature of merit is through managers and selection panels undertaking unconscious bias training, which can help to uncover implicit assumptions made in recruitment, selection and career development decisions.

Unconscious bias training has become a cornerstone of many gender equity strategies. In 2016, in the United Kingdom, around 110,000 people completed this training. Research has shown, however, that in order for bias training to be successful, it must be part of a continuous and sustained effort. Training needs to be ongoing and to be reinforced by other bias disruptors, so that, for example, selection panels have time to reflect on whether any unconscious biases may have influenced their decisions, and then rectify the situation if bias has occurred.

Many research participants had undertaken selection panel and unconscious bias training, but generally as standalone and one-off initiatives. This cannot provide the support they need.

Continue reading the piece here.

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