Fairfax Media

Macho public service workplaces in Australia are making women do the ‘office housework’

Also kept out of the ‘macho’ culture, female public servants are found to be far from breaking the glass ceiling in Australia’s federal public service

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 3:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 3:34pm

By Noel Towell

Women in the federal public service are still being used to do the office housework and kept out of important jobs by a ‘macho’ culture, according to a new academic study.

A leading workplace researcher says she was ‘shocked’ by some of the attitudes toward female public servants she found in the two large Canberra departments taking part in her survey.

An academic conference in the capital on Thursday will hear of women being routinely told “you’re a good girl”, being used to do the “office housework” being kept out of important policy jobs because they are seen as “male” roles with long hours.

Women are being forced to delay having children to stay competitive for good jobs as departments pay “lip service” to the notions of gender equality while female workers are still trying to play on an uneven field.

University of New South Wales workplace academic Sue Williamson has conducted 150 interviews and focus groups at the large departments, whose identities are not disclosed as a condition of participation in the study, and was shocked by some of the things she heard.

“There is still condescending language, women being called girls, women doing all the office house-keeping, photocopying the documents for the meetings, putting the water on the table, invisible office housework that women do...male employees don’t,” Dr Williamson told Fairfax.

“It’s really pervasive.”

The researcher acknowledged that the public service remained an employer of choice and that many good things were happening on gender equality in the bureaucracy including the Australian Public Service Commission’s gender equality strategy.

“The public service is still an employer of choice and provides excellent working conditions and is a leader in gender equality,” she said.

“The agencies I have spoken to have done lots of good things, gender pay equity audits, introducing flex and blind recruitment.”

But Dr Williamson will tell the conference that she found in some instances, blokey cultures still held sway in public service offices.

The academic found some of the high-tempo “sexy” jobs in policy areas, implementing the priorities of the government of the day, were too too often seen as “male” roles where the long hours and total commitment could not be offered by women with families.

“There was a feeling that some of the jobs in high-tempo areas were male jobs,” Dr Williamson said.

“There is an implicit preference, still, to have younger men doing those high-tempo policy jobs and if you’re a women or if you have a family, you can go off and do programme stuff.”

Women in the public service reported to Dr Williamson that they had been told they would not get the jobs they wanted if they had children.

“In quite a few instances, women said they had been told by their managers that they can’t work part-time and get to be an EL2 [executive level 2], so they should get to be an EL2 first and then have kids,” Dr Williamson said.

“It’s a real worry because then you have women who are delaying child-bearing and we now that men have those same considerations.

“So despite all the rhetoric and all the work that has been done, lots of women are still have to make a choice and I thought the public service was beyond that point.”

Macho public service workplaces are making women do the ‘office housework’