Things have changed somewhat in Canberra since late 1966, when the prohibition on married women in the Australian Public Service was lifted after eight years of consideration by men. Even if, in 1973, women were still regarded primarily as breeding stock for a city in short supply of females (a famous ad to draw women to Canberra lacks only a request for good child-bearing hips), the APS in time became a feminised service: as of 2010-11, 57% of public servants were women.
Only 38% of SES employees are women, but 46% of EL (executive level) public servants are women, and women outnumber men now up to the APS 6 level, whereas in the late 1990s they only outnumbered men up to the APS 4 level.
But there are some key Commonwealth agencies where women continue to be under-represented. Women are only 47% of the Department of Finance and 35% of its SES (only 37% of its EL staff). Only 44% of Reserve Bank staff (most of whom are in Sydney) are women and only 30% of its management positions are held by women. And then there's Treasury: 26% of Treasury SES are women and only 47% of all staff are women.
That is, our key economic agencies are, while better than they used to be, still places unusually devoid of women. In an era when we have a female Prime Minister, female Governor-General and female deputy Liberal leader, the prospect of a female Treasury secretary looks remote.
Treasury and Finance are critical players in the policy development process within the Commonwealth. The opposition of Treasury to significant proposals is very difficult to overcome. Finance's agreement to the costs of proposals is a threshold requirement, and Finance often uses that process to try to impose its own policy views. The RBA of course independently controls monetary policy (by the way the prudential regulator, APRA, has only 17% women in its senior levels). All are places where women are under-represented.
This is partly because the economics backgrounds important for a successful career in Treasury or the RBA dramatically narrows the talent pool for those agencies. Recent data is hard to come by but several years ago the dominance of women in undergraduate enrolments didn't translate into economics, where only 40% of undergraduates were women, and lower still for postgraduate studies. The teaching of economics is also a male-dominated profession, and that tends to extend through to economists with a public profile — Judith Sloan and Jess Irvine, for example, are the only female economists regularly seen in the media.
Treasury is sufficiently concerned about the dearth of women in its upper ranks to have launched an internal program to address it. Martin Parkinson spoke about the Progressing Women initiative in August:
"Diversity has been found to be important to high-performing and healthy organisations, in part because diverse perspectives improve the quality of decision making, and because organisations with better gender balance tend to have more inclusive cultures that optimise the skills and contribution of all their employees. In short, diversity can lead to better employee engagement. It is clear that organisations like Treasury will need to tap into a deeper and more diverse pool of talent and experience if we are to understand and meet the evolving and increasingly complex needs of the public, business and government."
Parkinson spoke of "a range of subtle cultural, attitudinal and behavioural issues that will take time and persistence to change".
The RBA is also concerned. It stated in its equity and diversity annual report that "during 2011/12, the bank's main gender focus was on promoting career and development opportunities for women in the bank".
Placing women in an "equity and diversity" column to an extent understates the significance of the problem. The public service, which long treated diversity as a box-ticking management fad, has a poor diversity record, particularly in Canberra, a highly mono-cultural city devoid outside the ANU of the sort of ethnic and racial diversity that Australians in larger cities have taken for granted for generations.
It continues to struggle to recruit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff despite an extensive array of programs, and it now employs fewer Australians with disabilities than 20 years ago.
Remedying these gaps continues to be a critical equity and recruitment task for the public service, which is clearly limiting the skills it is drawing on in its recruitment. But the under-representation of women in key economic portfolios has a direct, significant impact on the quality of policy making at the highest levels.