Theme Public Service/Policy

Written by Kath Macdermott, Independent Scholar


The concept of leadership is harder to deal with in regard to public service than in other areas. The following discussion necessarily excludes women who have led in the development of public policy but whose key contributions were made from outside the public service itself as political advisers, academics and legal specialists: women like Elizabeth Evatt, Chris Ronalds, Eva Cox, Lowitja O'Donoghue and Pat Anderson. Generally speaking, the government is meant to provide visible leadership, while public servants advise on and implement government policy. The public service values leadership, but it uses the term very broadly and usually to apply behind closed doors (APSC nd). As one senior women commented:

'One of the most difficult things in the public service is being a public face, because we don't seek the limelight. That's not why we do these jobs. If I wanted to be a public face, I would not be a public servant.' (Malone, 132)

Public servants may influence government decision-making, but those whose names appear in public tend to be tagged as politicised and are felt to have compromised their profession.

In a perverse way, the constraints on public service leadership have had less effect on women than they have had on men. In the first place, public service rules that comprehensively discriminated against women between 1902 and the early 1970s have driven some women to enter the limelight and to take leadership in calling for reform. Initially they had less than their male colleagues to lose and, very likely, less respect for the proprieties of the system.
In the second place, governments since Federation have tended to envisage the average citizen whom they are serving as male and have therefore found themselves out of their comfort zone when dealing with policies specifically targeting women. As a consequence, at those times when politicians have taken an interest in 'women's policy', they have invited high-profile women into the public service to do the work. As a further benefit, these high-profile women could wear some of the political blame when social conservatives decried 'the feminist drive to impose their ugly policies on the community' (Cains). For this reason, women have been more likely to appear as leaders in developing women's policy than they have been in the case of 'mainstream' policy.

Both of these factors have shaped the history of women's leadership in the public service. That history can only be told in outline here and refers principally to the Commonwealth public service. There is more to be said about developments in the different state public services; and many more names of significant women could be added to those referred to here.

Part 1: Under the Marriage Bar

The 1902 Commonwealth Public Service Act and its regulations and rules provided that women were to be excluded from most occupations and every form of advancement. In a series of self-fulfilling prophesies:

  • it was assumed that women were 'physiologically unfitted to carry responsibility at an age when men are improving and developing their capacity', and so, from 1903, women were not permitted to take the competitive entrance examination that led out of the General Division and into the career paths open to those in the Clerical, Professional and Administrative Divisions. For a brief time, women were still permitted to apply for promotion from the General Division, where they were employed as typists and telephonists. From 1915, this loophole was closed. This remained the case until 1949;
  • it was anticipated that married women would leave the service, and therefore married women were made ineligible for permanent appointment;
  • it was anticipated that single women only wanted to work until marriage, and so every unmarried female officer was 'deemed to have retired from the Commonwealth service upon her marriage'.

These arrangements were broadly replicated in state public services (Sheridan).

If it had not been for the further assumption that women were specially fitted by their manual dexterity for roles as typists, telephonists and telegraphists, there would not have been much that women could do in the public service. A 1928 electoral roll for a Canberra hostel for public service women lists only the occupations of waitress and pantry cook in addition to the inevitable typist, clerk, stenographer and machinist (Nugent, 31). Even then, there was occupational segregation among typists. Male shorthand typists were employed as parliamentary reporters in the Clerical Division and a new category of 'female typist' was confined to the General Division, where pay and status were significantly lower, and there was also significantly less scope for mobility or advancement (PSMPC, 2001, 95).

In 1918, the Royal Commission on Public Service Administration inquired into and endorsed these arrangements for women's employment, with the further recommendation that junior clerical positions be made available to women in the records areas, releasing 'promising youths' from routine duties and improving their scope for advancement (RCPSA, 1920, 77). Four years later, the first report of the newly formed Public Service Board also expressed quiet confidence that the Commonwealth had got its management of public service women just about right, and that women's place was in the General Division:

'The general experience throughout the world, as indicated by statistics published in many countries, is that the effective service of women is considerably below that of men, even in the same occupations, and that this is due principally to (1) loss of services through marriage, (2) greater absences on account of sickness, and (3) sapping vitality of unmarried women at an earlier age of life.' (PSB AR, 1923-24, 56)

Clearly the early Commonwealth public service did not value or encourage leadership in its women; nor did it position women to exercise leadership. It did, however, position women to get a good view of the inequality of its procedures and, in so doing, roused some to take a leading role in changing it.

Louisa Dunkley was one such woman. Dunkley had studied telegraphy and worked as an operator in Melbourne metropolitan post and telegraph offices and as a telegraphist at the Chief Telegraph Office between 1882 and 1890. The Post and Telegraph Department of Victoria had been employing women as postmistresses and telegraph operators since 1870 because they were prepared to work for less pay than post masters and male telegraph operators (Nugent, 31). Having experienced the differential pay and status of women telegraphists in Victoria, and seen the first advances towards equal pay in the colony of New South Wales, Dunkley and other operators established the Victorian Women's Post and Telegraph Association in 1900 (Baker, ADB).

Despite the inevitable opposition, these women fought for and won a legislated right to equal pay when the colonial postal services were amalgamated under the 1902 Public Service Act-a right that has applied generally ever since. Dunkley herself, however, married in 1903 and so retired from the Commonwealth public service.

Setting aside its role in supporting wage inequality, the sex segregation of public service work did open some access to leadership roles for those women not trapped in the General Division. Riding the first wave of Australian feminism, which brought women the vote, women's groups had lobbied for women in the new state and Commonwealth public services to be employed in areas in the public service 'where the clients were female'. One area governments were prepared to open to women delivering services to women was infant health. In 1926, the Victorian government created a section of infant welfare in the Health Department, and Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown was appointed part-time director. In that position, she established compulsory training and examinations for sisters at infant welfare centres; enabled expectant mothers to attend welfare centres for advice; and worked to broaden infant welfare to include the pre-school child. Over her public service career, she played a significant role in lowering morbidity and mortality among infants (Campbell, ADB).

Restrictions on women's movement through the public service more generally were to remain in place for a further forty years after Dr Scantlebury Brown's appointment. In the end, the Commonwealth only changed its rules in response to supply and demand. Women had been permitted temporary access to some public service classifications during World War II and, in 1949, this was made permanent. This concession was not very meaningful, however, because the marriage bar continued to deter supervisors from training or promoting women.

Under these circumstances, it was not easy to attract women to Canberra. Up to the mid-1960s, reports of the Public Service Board were 'replete with gloomy comments on the difficulty of both recruiting and keeping suitable "girls" to do stenographic work' (PSMPC 2001, 95). In 1966, Australia became almost the last democratic country to lift the marriage bar, which by this time 'had blighted the careers of many women, forcing others to "live in sin"' (Sawer, 1997, 1). In the three years following the lifting of the bar, the number of married women in permanent positions more than tripled from 3,606 to 10,940 (PSB AR 1970-71, 102).

Part 2: The Rise of the Femocrats 1972-1995

Women did not flock to Canberra in response to the raising of the marriage bar. A notorious recruitment brochure from 1973 shows that the Public Service Board was still trying to attract women to Canberra with the prospect of a bonus for speed typing ('Because I can type at 50 wmp I get a bonus.') and a husband ('this is Ian. He's very nice but a bit shy. Ian works in my department ... so we see quite a bit of each other.') (PSB, 1973).

Things had not changed much. In 1974, over half of the women in the Commonwealth public service were still employed in three occupations - as telephonists (17 per cent), typists and steno-secretaries (16 per cent) and clerical assistants (24 per cent). There was still no career structure for the women-only occupations.

However, there was political support for change. Towards the end of 1969, the second wave of women's liberation arrived in Australia. Women's organisations began to lobby government for change. In particular, the Women's Electoral Lobby set about translating the demands of the women's movement into a public policy agenda in the lead-up to the election that was to end 23 years of conservative government at the federal level in Australia.

The newly elected Whitlam Labor government was prepared to respond to the demands of the women's movement in its capacity as a maker of public policy and as the largest single employer of labour in Australia. It also had an eye to international commitments in the form of International Labour Organization Conventions on discrimination and equal pay, and the forthcoming UN International Women's Year. What it did not have were in-house skills in advising on women's policy.

In 1972, the Commonwealth government went outside the public service for its first appointment of a woman to a Senior Executive Service (SES) position. Marie Coleman, then director of the Victorian Council of Social Service, was made head of the Social Welfare Commission, beginning a twenty-year public service career overseeing reforms in child care, social welfare and family planning (Morrell, Henningham & Coleman, AWR). In 1973, the new prime minister also employed the first women's adviser, Elizabeth Reid, to provide advice at the political level, and a number of other feminists were appointed to the staff of several ministers (Land & Francis, AWR).

Reid worked tirelessly on a range of issues from the delivery of women's services (including women's refuges, rape crisis centres and women's health centres), child care, equal employment opportunity in education, labour market training, employment and access to housing. As the work at the political level expanded, so did her need for support from public servants who understood both those issues and the workings of structural inequality. However, the history of policy-making and employment discrimination in the public sector meant that the skills required to do the work were not available in house.

Under Reid's leadership, the government took steps to enable women to rise through the ranks to more senior policy levels. Upper age limits for recruitment into clerical and other positions that had discriminated against women re-entering the workforce were abolished. The Public Service Board repealed restrictions creating 'men only' and 'women only' jobs. In 1975, an Equal Employment Opportunity Section was created in the Commonwealth Public Service Board to develop and implement EEO programs.

But EEO programs are by their nature slow to show results for those working their way up through the system, and, in 1974, of the 1,143 SES officers in the Commonwealth public service, only four were women, including Marie Coleman. Accordingly, both Commonwealth and state public services began to appoint outside experts to policy positions inaccessible to those just beginning to make their way out of the existing female ghettos. While some career public servants made their way into these positions, especially by the mid-1980s, initially the call was for feminists:

'Indeed, the requirement of a demonstrated commitment to feminism, in the form of some experience in an activist area, had been, with some help from the equal employment opportunity (EEO) programme, incorporated into job descriptions. The spectacle of very traditional-looking male bureaucrats, in pin-striped suits and conservative ties, reading over the credentials of women candidates and discussing seriously their respective claims to authentic feminist commitment and political experience, is one that stays with me ... ' (Eisenstein, 1990, 90)

Women applicants 'typically made the move during the early, and optimistic, days of the various Labor Governments (e.g. Canberra 1972 and maybe 1983; Victoria 1983; South Australia 1970 and 1982; New South Wales 1976); they were usually hired for their feminist politics (or at least a muted version thereof), their political skills and networks' (Lynch, 39). Given this combination of criteria, it is not surprising that, as Sawer (1990) has shown, many of the new appointees had strong links to the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL).

WEL began life as a women's national political caucus and, almost uniquely among women's organisations, attracted or created the broad policy development and networking skills that governments wanted. South Australian WEL members Deborah McCulloch (Bambridge, AWR) and later Carol Treloar were to hold the positions of women's adviser to the premier (Treloar). In Tasmania, WEL member Kim Boyer became the Tasmanian Women's adviser (Boyer). The comparable position in NSW was first occupied by Carmel Niland (a founding member of WEL-ACT) (Heywood, 'Niland', AWR) and then by Helen l'Orange (a founding member of WEL-NSW), who in 1988 became head of the Office for the Status of Women (Heywood, 'L'Orange', AWR). Alison Ziller, who had convened the WEL-NSW Action Group on Family Planning, became NSW director of equal opportunity in employment. Clare Burton of NSW-WEL was made the director of equal opportunity in public employment in NSW in 1989 and, in 1992, became the commissioner for public sector equity in the Queensland Goss government (Land, 'Burton', AWR).

Joan Bielski, another foundation member of WEL, headed the social development unit in the NSW Ministry of Education from 1977 to 1984, where she was tasked with eliminating discrimination in the education system (Land, 'Bielski', AWR). June Williams was a founding member of the lobby's NSW branch and Western Australia's first equal opportunity commissioner in 1985 (SMH).

At the federal level, a Women's Affairs Section was created in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Sara Dowse (a member of the Women's Liberation Movement and WEL-ACT, dubbed 'Supergirl' by the press) was appointed to head it up (Lemon, AWR). Gail Radford, inaugural convenor of WEL-ACT, headed the Commonwealth's EEO machinery from its beginnings in 1975 through to 1990 (Radford, AWR; ANU). Pam O'Neil, an active member of WEL-Darwin, became the first Commonwealth sex discrimination commissioner in 1984 (Heywood, 'O'Neil', AWR). She was succeeded in 1988 by Quentin Bryce, a member of WEL-Brisbane (AWR).

Lyndsay Connors, a foundation member of WEL-ACT, became a full-time commissioner of the Commonwealth Schools Commission under the Hawke Labor government and was responsible for the development of the National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools (Heywood, 'Connors', AWR). Meredith Edwards, another WEL-ACT member, who had been responsible for many of WEL's pre-budget submissions, was seconded to the Office for the Status of Women in 1983. She went on to become head of the Social Policy Division of the Department of Social Security, and then moved to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (1993-1997) as head of a taskforce on long-term unemployment issues and later as deputy secretary (Sawer, 1990, 8, updated; Land, 'Edwards', AWR).

Of course non-WEL women were also appointed to the public service. One of the most notable was Valerie Pratt, who came late to the women's movement and was divisional personnel manager for CSR Ltd when she was recruited to Office for the Status of Women (OSW) for the Hawke government's pilot affirmative action program. Following the passage of the Affirmative Action Act, she became founding director of the agency in 1986, leaving it strong enough in 1994 to survive a 1999 independent review by mainly employer representatives (Macquarie University).

All of these women came to be called femocrats:

'"Femocrat" is a term invented in Australia to describe feminists who take up women's policy positions in government. Many of these were recruited from outside into middle-level or more senior positions in the bureaucracy and were appointed because of expertise and advocacy skills developed in the women's movement. They often knew little about bureaucracy and "learned more from the stenographer than anyone else"'. (Sawer, 1990, 22 - 3)

The femocrats were outsiders from the beginning, increasingly suspected by the politicians who relied on them of disregarding political realities (Summers, 1986, 62; Eisenstein, 1996, 89); suspected by longstanding public servants of disregarding public service proprieties (Summers, 1986, 67); suspected by feminists of being captured by the power, pay and protocols of the bureaucracy (Lynch, 40ff; Sawer, 1990, 24 - 7; Eisenstein, 1996, 74 - 8); suspected by the press of being failed wives and mothers (Sawer, 1990, 18 - 21; Sawer, 2008, 123 - 5); and suspected by the New Right of 'endangering the fabric of society' (WWWW, 1985, 1; Eisenstein, 1996, xv). Unlike the usual run of public servants, these women were exposed. Everyone else took one step back. The femocrats were, nevertheless, leaders, responsible for the public policy they developed in a way that has not occurred before or since in the public service.

The second consequence of the exposure of femocrats was that they they looked more to each other than public servants usually did. This is not to say that views were uniform - because they were not - but rather that debates were generally kept in house. Mistrusted by their employers, colleagues and constituency, they had to rely on each other (Eisenstein, 1996, 39 - 42).

For this reason, and because of their experience in working in the women's movement, the femocrats brought to the public service a form of leadership based on networking. What had begun as a way of linking the women's movement to 'feminists working right throughout society in various places, in the media, in the Public Service, in the unions' (Dowse, in Sawer, 1990, 30) became over the Whitlam/Fraser/Hawke years a form of government machinery. The Office of Women's Affairs (later OSW) became a central hub with links to agencies with policy interests in employment, education, industrial relations, social services and anti-discrimination law. The model took shape gradually - although the later Fraser years demonstrated that women's policy units could be de-funded and public service positions could be sidelined or made redundant as internal or external politics dictated.

Losses in those years were regained following the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983. It was the women's vote that had taken the Labor party over the line into government. The prime minister appointed Anne Summers (Heywood, 'Summers', (AWR) to head the OSW (whose staff the New Right delighted to call SOWs (WWWW, 1982, 1) in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. A journalist whose involvement with the women's movement went back to the beginnings of the second wave, Summers understood the position of femocrats in the system - the system's distrust of them, their distrust of the system, their support for each other, and their networks extending out of the Commonwealth bureaucracy and into state public service networks, community organisations, unions and even international forums:

'The relationships between women's units and other governmental agencies will never be a relaxed one … because the interests of women's units are by definition wide-ranging and thus threatening to the entrenched territorial views of other departments.' (Summers, 1986, 67)

Like Dowse before her and later heads of OSW, Summers made the network model work to deliver women's policy. Inside the network, information and ideas came in, were beaten into policy shape across relevant portfolios, and were sent to OSW for discussion, Cabinet support, funding or all three. Sometimes OSW asked for this to happen; sometimes ideas came from other agencies or from networks outside the bureaucracy altogether.

What varied between heads of OSW was the extent to which each sought to build working links between the Office and public servants outside the femocrat network. OSW's position and role did not lend themselves to significant bonding:

'Given the role of heading off any proposal that wasn't woman-friendly, we haven't been regarded too kindly by the traditional bureaucrats. We made ourselves very unpopular as we poked around in other people's policies and wrote comments on their cabinet submissions.' (Summers, in Sawer & Groves, 30)

Nevertheless, some femocrats inside and outside of OSW were disposed to build strong working relationships with both senior bureaucrats and politicians, who between them always retained the power to make or break a new policy proposal.

Thus, while key femocrats led in their respective policy areas, the network model meant that more often than not women's leadership and achievements during this period were the collective property of the network and the government of the day. Under the federal Labor governments of the 1980s and 1990s, femocrats working through formal and informal networks inside and outside government shaped policy over a range of sectors including:

  • the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women;
  • Sex discrimination legislation covering education, services (including government services such as labour market training), employment and access to housing;
  • significantly increased funding for women's services (including women's refuges, rape crisis centres and women's health centres);
  • shifting of family support to primary carers;
  • the quintupling of the national childcare program;
  • national programs on violence against women;
  • the National Women's Health Policy;
  • the National Policy and Plan for Action on the Education of Women and Girls;
  • the ratification of International Labour Organization Convention 156 on Workers with Family responsibility and a range of initiatives to implement ILO recommendations;
  • the removal of most legislative and award restrictions on women's employment;
  • support for outworkers in industry restructuring;
  • the Jobs, Education and Training program for sole parents;
  • affirmative action legislation requiring private sector companies to develop equal opportunity programs;
  • early equal pay legislation;
  • the inclusion of low-income earners (the majority of whom were women) in tax cuts.

Women's leadership in the public service between 1972 and 1995 tended to be in portfolios with policies affecting significant numbers of women. That is where the femocrats had been employed to advise and that is where their advice was, and was seen to be, pioneering. However, other women were certainly now progressing through the public service. By 1995, women made up 47 per cent of permanent public servants; 20 per cent of the lowest SES band; 13 per cent of band 2; and 5 per cent (4 individuals) of band 3 (PSMPC 1998, Table 7, 24). But most of these women viewed women's units as career limiting and sought out the mainstream - except in the area of Indigenous policy and service delivery.

It had taken feminists some time to come to terms with the fact that, for Indigenous women, as for many women from non-English-speaking backgrounds, discrimination was not just about sexism but about race, culture, education, language, class, skills, and poverty as well. It had taken the Department of Aboriginal Affairs longer to come to terms with the fact that Indigenous men did not speak for Indigenous women.

When the OSW was reconstituted in the Prime Minister's Department in 1983, one of its major priorities was to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women directly about their critical needs. OSW set up a task force headed by two Aboriginal women, Phyllis Daylight and Mary Johnstone, assisted by eleven Aboriginal and Islander regional co-ordinators, to consult widely with Aboriginal women from round Australia (Johnstone & Shay). Their 1986 report, Women's Business, reaffirmed the power of women's law and ties to the land; confirmed the need to consult directly with women; and identified a number of policy issues in health, housing and other services. The report also clarified the double burden of Indigenous leaders in the public service, who are expected to advance public policy for Indigenous people, and also to act as role models for young people, while straddling different cultures and cultural norms.

Some women managed the double act. Victorian Mollie Dyer, of Yorta Yorta descent, was instrumental in establishing the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency in 1977, and became its first program director (Davis, 75, 83-5; Kovacic & Lemon, AWR). Pat O'Shane, the first Aboriginal Australian barrister, was appointed permanent head of the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in 1981, becoming not only the first Aboriginal but also the first female permanent head of ministry in Australia (Kovacic & Henningham, AWR). Pat Turner entered the public service in 1979, working as deputy secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet during 1991-92, with oversight of the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. She became the first Aboriginal woman to head a federal agency when she was appointed chief executive officer (CEO) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1994, moving on to be executive director, Indigenous Services with Centrelink, and later deputy CEO (Land & Henningham, AWR).

Part 3: Mainstreamed 1996 - 2013

In 1996, the federal government changed. The pressures on women's policy exerted by economic rationalists through the 1980s and 1990s (Eisenstein, 1996, ch. 13; Sawer, 1996, 2ff.; Van Acker, 1999, 130ff.) were now reinforced by direct political pressure. The new prime minister in the Liberal - National Party government, John Howard, had made it clear before the elections that women's interests, feminist activism and gender policy analysis constituted a threat to the 'mainstream interests' a government he led would aim to serve:

'The power of one mainstream has been diminished by this government's reactions to the force of a few interest groups. Many Australians in the mainstream feel utterly powerless to compete with such groups, who seem to have the ear completely of the government on major issues.This bureaucracy of the new class is a world apart from the myriad spontaneous, community based organisations which have been part and parcel of the Australian mainstream for decades. These trends reflect a style of government which will change profoundly under the Liberal and National Parties.' (Howard, 1995)

Femocrats had become part of 'the bureaucracy of the new class' and the government did not require their services. It was assisted in dispensing with those services by an initiative that had come out of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. That initiative also featured the word 'mainstreaming', which, in its case, referred to the ambition of making women's policy the responsibility of everyone, which (as expected) succeeded in making it the responsibility of no one. This form of mainstreaming was also warmly embraced and implemented under the Howard government.

Mainstreaming policies meant that many of the positions in the Commonwealth public service that had provided leadership opportunities for women interested in improving policies and programs for women were lost. The centre/periphery structure was dismantled: OSW's funding was cut from $5.58m to $3.68m; and its staff was halved; the rump was eventually moved out of the Prime Minister's Department. The budget of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, where the sex discrimination commissioner, then Sue Walpole (Francis, AWR), was housed, was cut by 40 per cent, resulting in a staff cut of one third. Walpole resigned in February 1997 and the position was left vacant for more than a year.

The Women's Bureau in the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs was dismantled. According to a widely circulated departmental minute, it was to be replaced by 'a "mainstreaming" arrangement whereby resources for equity purposes are allocated to, and identified within, each relevant division'. The Affirmative Action Agency was put under independent review. The Equal Pay Unit in the industrial relations portfolio remained to provide secretariat services to the review and afterwards eventually disappeared. The Women's Statistics Unit in the Australian Bureau of Statistics was abolished in the 1996 August Budget.

Funding for child care was cut and tax and welfare policies reshaped to encourage women to stay out of the workforce (Summers, 2003, ch. 7). WEL was de-funded and those women's organisations that continued to receive funding were required to sign a contract preventing them from commenting publicly on anything related to women without getting written permission (Summers, 2003, 128 - 9). In the absence of the old feminist networks linking the bureaucracy and the community, comment on these developments was muted; nor was there anyone left to collect data on the impact of the cuts.

In the Indigenous area, Dawn Casey - who was recognised for her groundbreaking work for Indigenous culture and art while director of the National Museum of Australia - got caught up in Howard's history wars and found that her contract was not to be renewed (Windschuttle).

Of course there were women moving through Howard's mainstream. They saw their careers in more conventional terms than the femocrats had, accepted the expectations of the system, and built the capabilities and behaviours required of senior public servants. The Howard government appointed three of these career bureaucrats as secretaries: Joanna Hewitt became secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Malone); Lisa Paul became secretary of the Department of Education, Science and Training (Malone); and Patricia Scott became secretary of the new Department of Human Services (Malone).

These appointments, together with the existing appointments of Helen Williams as secretary of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Malone), and Jane Halton as secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing (Malone), meant that by 2004 five of the nineteen most senior Commonwealth public servants were women - two of them managing organisations employing more than 4,000 staff. Sue Vardon, then CEO of Centrelink, was managing an organisation of more than 25,000 (APSC 2003 - 04, Appendix 1, 261ff; Connecting Up). Undoubtedly, all of these women have been influential in government decision-making, but any policy leadership they have shown has stayed, consistent with good public service practice, largely out of sight. When asked about their roles, they have characteristically represented themselves as CEOs of an organisation implementing an agenda laid out for it by the minister of the day (Malone, chs 4, 7, 11, 17, 18).

One noteworthy exception to the mainstream bureaucratic practice of associating leadership with position in a hierarchy is the case of Barbara Belcher, who headed the government division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet between 1999 and 2009. In that position she exercised an enormous quiet authority founded, according to the prime minister of the day, on:

'A reputation for common sense, probity and sound judgment that is, on most assessments, unsurpassed in the Australian Public Service. Prime ministers, ministers and senior officials have sought her views on a range of parliamentary and ethical questions confident in the knowledge that her advice would be well-founded and utterly reliable.' (Rudd)


By 2001, the centenary of Federation, women had become for the first time a majority of ongoing public service staff. By 2002, the centenary of the Public Service Act, they made up 37 per cent of the Executive Level group, and 28 per cent of the SES (APSC 2002, 5).


By this time, the femocracy had been largely dismantled. The old femocrat approach to leadership through networking was formally mainstreamed, becoming a strategy for making bureaucrats work more effectively in pursuing government goals across different portfolios (MAC 2004). Not long afterwards, the Public Service Commission declared that the Commonwealth had 'made great progress' in mainstreaming women and no longer saw a need to include them among disadvantaged groups in its annual EEO reporting (PSC 2007, 80).

Despite the fact that occupational segregation and pay equity remain issues for women in the public service (APSC 2008), there is no doubt that the number of women in the service has grown and that women have increasingly made their way into positions of leadership. There is also no doubt that while in those positions they have had a considerable influence on the lives of Australians, particularly Australian women. Nevertheless, in terms of the women themselves, it is difficult not to invoke Eva Cox's reflection on EEO more generally:

'We had hoped that women's increasing participation in senior ranks would
result in changing models of leadership, that institutions would become more
responsive to work/life balance, and that organisational cultures would cease to
valorise long hours and increased work intensity. In practice, relatively few women made their way into senior leadership roles, and those few were constrained to adapt to existing organisational cultures rather than change them, as had been hoped.' (Cox)

Models of leadership have changed in the public service: there is more interest in consultation and networking as a management style (Sedgwick), and more awareness of work and family pressures. Nevertheless, less has changed than had been hoped.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Interview with Carol Treloar, feminist and Women's Advisor to the Premier of South Australia, 1984-1990 [sound recording] / interviewer, Biff Ward, 29 June 2000, ORAL TRC 4594; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), Australian Public Service Statistical Bulletin 2001 - 02: State of the Service Series 2001 - 2002, AusInfo, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2002. Details
  • Eisenstein, Hester, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • Public Service and Merit Protection Commission (PSMPC), Serving the Nation: 100 Years of Public Service, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2001. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Making Women Count: A History of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Australia, Radford, Gail, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2008, 317 pp. Details
  • Sawer, Marian and Groves, Abigail, Working from Inside: Twenty Years of the Office of the Status of Women, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1994. Details
  • Summers, Anne, The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women's Choices in 21st-Century Australia, Random House Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 2003. Details
  • Van Acker, Elizabeth, Different Voices: Gender and Politics in Australia, Macmillan Education, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999. Details

Book Sections

  • Eisenstein, Hester, 'Femocrats, Official Feminism and the Uses of Power', in Watson, Sophie (ed.), Playing the State: Australian Feminist Interventions, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990, pp. 87 - 103. Details
  • Summers, Anne, 'Mandarins or Missionaries: Women in the Federal Bureaucracy', in Norma Grieve and Alisa Burns (eds), Australian Women: New Feminist Perspectives, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1986, pp. 59 - 67. Details

Edited Books

  • Sawer, Marian (ed.), Removal of the Commonwealth Marriage Bar: A Documentary History, University of Canberra: Centre for Research in Public Sector Management, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1997. Details

Journal Articles

  • Lynch, Lesley, 'Bureaucratic Feminisms: Bossism & Beige Suits', Refractory Girl, May, 1984, pp. 38 - 44. Details
  • Windschuttle, Keith, 'How Not to Run a Museum: People's History at the Postmodern Museum', Quadrant, September 2001. Details



  • Women Who Want To Be Women (WWWWW), Newsletter, 1982. Details
  • Women Who Want To Be Women (WWWWW), Newsletter, 1985. Details

Newspaper Articles


  • Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), Submission 102.1 to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations Inquiry into Pay Equity and Associated Issues Related to Increasing Female Participation in the Workforce, Submisson, 2008. Details
  • Cox, Eva, Have Separate Rights Based Claims for Equal Opportunity Reached their Use-by Date?, prepared for Equal Opportunity Practitioners in Higher Education Keynote Address, Unpublished draft, 2002. Details
  • Malone, Paul, Australian Department Heads Under Howard: Career Paths and Practice, Collected Articles from The Canberra Times, Australian National University (ANU) E Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2006. Details
  • Sheridan, Tom, Mandarins, Ministers and the Bar on Married Women, Working Paper 03-8, The University of Adelaide: School of Economics, 2003. Details


Resource Sections


Online Resources