Dr Gillian Sparkes, has held senior positions in both the public and private sectors. In her role as the independent Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria and a member of the Top 50 Public Sector Women judging panel, she chats with Sharon Ardley about gender diversity challenges.

You are in the unique position of having held senior positions in both the public and private sectors. Is there a difference in approach to tackling the gender gaps in the public and private sectors?

Technically there does not need to be a difference – set a policy and implement it – but practically yes, in my experience there are different approaches. Leadership in all sectors can make the choice to embrace diversity and inclusion as an organisational principle. It is theoretically possible in any sector and any organisation to make proactive, merit based appointments; promote and develop leadership within an organisation and make unbiased decisions regarding promotion and recruitment.

My recent experience, is that the public sector is more likely to embrace the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce than the private sector. The Victorian public sector has made good progress towards a 50:50 ratio of women: men in leadership roles, including public sector boards.

There is still a way to go to develop an authentic culture that embraces diversity in the public and private sectors, but targets certainly catalyse women into leadership roles – enriching conversations and debates at the board and executive table. That can only be a good thing.

Photo of Dr Gillian Sparkes

The focus of Environmental Sustainability Victoria has parallels with the gender diversity movement in that to develop vibrant and sustainable workforces (or environments) there needs to be understanding and commitment that we all play a role in creating healthy, balanced and diverse workplaces/environments. The decisions we make today will impact on the future.

What programs or initiatives have you been a part of to grow the number of females at senior levels?

We are experiencing an unprecedented change in attitudes and outcomes in the Victorian public sector through government policy. The momentum for change is strong.

The Victorian public sector is implementing the Andrews Government policy to achieve 50% women in leadership roles. This policy has unlocked a lot of energy, enthusiasm and outcomes and was strengthened with the release of the Victorian Gender Equality Strategy in 2016.

Throughout my career, I have been involved in championing gender diversity in many ways including as a leader of organisational and cultural change, advocating for and demonstrating merit based recruitment processes, sharing the lessons of my journey with others at forums and in more passive ways – such as through mentoring – both having mentors myself and mentoring others.

Mentors – female and male – have played an important role in my career. Seeking out and nurturing relationships with experienced and respected women and men, has helped me to develop my leadership skills and provided vital guidance. Frequent (daily) reflection, mindfulness and other techniques that develop a deeper understanding of self and the values that define you as a leader, are important rituals that I subscribe to and encourage in others.

Two key areas that women discuss with me and seek tips on are:

  1. Self confidence
  2. Work life balance

For myself and other women, I think one of the most important things a mentor can help with is self-belief. Developing self-confidence and the ability to take a risk, ‘have a go’ and back yourself. To know that you are normal – all people have hopes and fears – so trust and believe in yourself and your ability.

I also speak with many women about the challenges of balancing a family and caring responsibilities, with work and career. Having balanced a career with parenting, I find that other mothers in particular, are keen to share in my experiences. I have long felt that gender equality at work begins with gender equality at home – men and women genuinely sharing family and caring duties outside of work. Happily, during my 35 year career there has been a significant shift in societal norms regarding the roles of men and women in the home, as parents and carers. These roles are more equal than they were when I had my first child in 1987, for example. That is a great thing.

A key message I give others is that maintaining a breadth and depth of relationships and thought are critical for success. Building relationships with people who are different from you is important. People who will help expand your thinking, perspective and conversations outside the echo chamber of ‘your tribe’. Take opportunities when they arise, dip into diversity, be curious and take in new perspectives – work and play with people that are not from your existing networks and challenge your thinking. Personal growth often comes with some discomfort and career opportunities usually find you. Be brave and back yourself into challenging, diverse roles. Don’t worry if you start off being the only woman in the room. Just get on with the job and over time, you will be a force for gender balance yourself.

What was the single most important decision that you made during your career that has enabled you to rise to such levels of seniority?

It’s hard to select a single decision and certainly, I have personal values and principles that have guided my decisions regarding my career. However, if I had to pick one decision I would say my decision to undertake a PhD in chemistry. I was working for BHP at the time in a very male dominated, industrial setting. I had been promoted to Laboratory Manager after having my second child and came to the view that to succeed in my career, to differentiate myself from my male counterparts, I needed to have the highest possible qualifications. I felt at the time, that I needed to be more qualified than the men with whom I was competing with for opportunities. Whether the motivation was right or wrong, that decision has served me well. Studying science to PhD level enabled me to develop ways of thinking and critical problem solving that have been invaluable throughout my career.

In some sectors, gender targets are seen as the only way to achieve better representation of women. What are your thoughts on this?

In an ideal world, I would prefer not to need targets however, when I listen to respected leaders such as the Chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Elizabeth Proust, speak on the issue of diversity on boards, I am increasingly convinced that targets are required to deliver the momentum required for systemic change. Targets can drive the change, that in chemistry terms – will get us over the activation energy required to achieve the ‘critical mass’ of women in leadership roles so that gender diversity eventually becomes self-sustaining and a non-issue.

To achieve change, we must change something. The need to achieve targets will incentivise change. I am watching with interest, the Australian Institute of Company Director’s current campaign led by Elizabeth Proust to get S&P/ASX 200 female board representation at 30% by the end of 2018.

What do you feel is the single biggest challenge facing the public sector in achieving gender balance at senior levels?

Maintaining authentic leadership – ensuring our leaders walk the talk is possibly the single biggest challenge for the public (and private) sector to achieve and maintain gender balance at senior levels.

While the leadership of the public service is independent of government and can set its own policies on gender balance, the sector benefits greatly when the political class also demonstrate leadership on the issue of gender balance. The Victorian public sector currently has the policies, momentum and leadership at both executive government and senior executive levels to achieve great inroads in gender balance.

In 1982, Premier Cain appointed the first woman as a Minister in the Victorian Cabinet, when Pauline Toner was appointed as Minister for Community Welfare Services. (Three years later in 1985, Helen Rodda Williams became the first woman appointed as a Secretary of an Australian government department).  Thirty-five years later we have 10 women and 12 men in the Victorian, Andrews’ Government Ministry. Two of seven departmental Secretaries in Victoria are women.

Continuing to employ public sector leaders who truly believe and advocate for the value and benefit of gender balance and diversity – who continue to challenge and proactively address unconscious bias in the system, the leadership and those holding positions of power within the public sector – is critical to ensuring that our approach to gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness is embedded. Diligence and a long term commitment by all levels of leadership will be required to enshrine the current, positive shift in gender balance in the Victorian public sector.

Sharon Ardley is General Manager, HR Consulting (Vic). Entries are now open and nominations can be submitted for the Top 50 Public Sector Women (Victoria).  For more information go to: www.publicsectorwomen.com.au