Middle managers face a range of barriers when implementing gender equity initiatives. Opportunities therefore abound for HR to not only increase middle manager capability, but to also be at the cutting edge to progress equity and diversity initiatives.
A new report, conducted by the authors of this article, is based on speaking with almost 300 public sector middle managers – it shows that they’re committed to increasing gender equity in their workplaces. Additionally, they often implement leading practices. Many, however, lack the understanding, the time and the resources to implement best practice procedures. The vast majority requested additional support from HR.
We also spoke with HR officers who are time-poor, but committed to developing and implementing policies around gender equity, ensuring these were communicated to managers and employees, and implementing innovations, such as showcasing stories of successful flexible working initiatives.
Managers are seeking greater knowledge and support in three main areas in which HR can assist. 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, and therefore have less visibility, less access to important career development opportunities, and networks.
We encourage HR, in conjunction with senior executives, to lead a conversation challenging the presumed objectivity of the merit principle and encourage managers to see how recruiting for equity and diversity can co-exist with merit. Some public sector jurisdictions are doing this, and have released guides on merit and equity. Others are providing training and support, such as unconscious bias training, to assist managers to identify how they might better support diversity.
A second area where managers requested support from HR was in managing employees who wanted to work flexibly, or were already doing so.
Making flexible work a reality
While the majority of managers are committed to enabling flexible working, they requested greater support around when they could refuse a request. 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. Others were confused about what to do when new staff requested flexible work that didn’t work well with existing staff arrangements. Managers requested that HR provide guidance around these situations.
Additionally, managers requested more information from HR around how to manage those working flexibly, particularly those working from home. Many managers did not know how to manage underperforming employees who worked outside the office. They were unaware that the same performance and underperformance management techniques should be used for all employees, including those working from home.
Learning gender equity
The third area where managers requested additional support was in talking about gender equity. They are committed to equity and diversity, but many did not know how to talk to staff about gender equity issues – or even what issues they could discuss. Some managers we spoke with had a working knowledge of their organisation’s diversity and gender equity policies, however, many did not.
Middle managers are generally not expert in gender equity issues and did not consider they had the requisite knowledge to talk about different ways of working flexibly, how recruitment and selection processes could be less biased or gender pay equity. HR areas come to the fore here, too, and could provide managers with a toolkit of topics they could discuss.
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 often lack the time and resources to implement daily initiatives to progress gender equity. Continued and targeted support from HR to increase managers’ capability will ensure that they not only manage, but lead to make agencies more gender equitable.
This article is based on ‘The Role of Middle Managers in Progressing Gender Equity in the Public Sector’. Professor Rae Cooper, the University of Sydney is also a co-author of the report. 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. For more information on the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.