• Opinion
  • August 15, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 2

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

Opinion: Civil service policies of flexible work and diverse hiring are hard to implement

This opinion piece was written by Sue Williamson, an academic with the School of Business, UNSW Canberra. It can also be found on our gender equality newsfeed


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.

“We are witnessing a worldwide trend towards increasing gender equity in the public sector”

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.

How to take charge of flexible working policies

A second area where managers requested support was in managing employees who work flexibly. While the majority of managers are committed to enabling flexible working, they want help knowing when they can refuse a request.

“Managers want helping knowing when they can refuse a request for flexible working”

In Australia, as in the UK, employees have a “right to request” flexible working arrangements, which can be refused on “reasonable business grounds”.

We heard a range of reasons why managers would like to refuse employee requests to work flexibly. Some were concerned that if they allowed one employee to work from home, they would be inundated with requests from other employees.

Many were concerned about managing a team of largely part-time employees and the potential impact this might have on meeting deadlines. Without clear guidelines around these tricky scenarios, a handful of managers thought the whole thing was just too hard.

Managers were largely unaware that the floodgate argument is not a good enough reason to refuse a request; and neither is managerial preference to not have employees working flexibly. While this information may be available, civil service HR needs to provide such information to managers on an ongoing basis.

How do I even talk about gender?

The third area where managers want more help is simply in talking about gender equity: many do not even know which issues they can discuss. Middle managers are generally not gender equality experts, and many do not consider they have the required knowledge to talk to staff about different ways of working flexibly, bias in recruitment and selection processes or pay inequality.

“Middle managers are generally not gender equality experts”

Many managers we spoke with had a working knowledge of their organisation’s diversity and gender equity policies — many, however, did not.  HR must play a greater role: it could, for example, provide managers with toolkits of topics for discussion.

We are witnessing a worldwide trend towards increasing gender equity in the public sector. Middle managers are the lynchpin between senior management and employees, but are often time-poor. A little more support to increase their capability would ensure that the civil service continues to be an employer of choice for women. — Sue Williamson

This article is based on The Role of Middle Managers in Progressing Gender Equity in the Public Sector. Co-authors are Dr Linda Colley, CQUniversity, Dr Meraiah Foley, UNSW Canberra and Professor Rae Cooper, the University of Sydney. The New South Wales, Queensland, South Australian and Tasmanian governments participated in, and funded the research; the Australia and New Zealand School of Government was the principal funder. 

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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