Thursday, October 26, 2023

Barbara Deegan - Federal public service has an ‘Asian penalty’ problem


Barbara is a highly credentialed public sector employment and workplace relations adviser. She served as a Commissioner of the Fair Work Commission and its predecessors from 1996 to 2014 and as a Commissioner of the Tasmanian Industrial Commission from 2010 to 2014. Prior to this time Barbara held senior roles, including as Agency Head, in the Commonwealth public service.

Barbara has provided clients with strategic insights into a range of employment and workplace relations issues, including unfair dismissal, enterprise bargaining and industrial action under the Fair Work Act 2009. She is recognised for her work on employment terms and conditions, some of which involve significant economic outcomes. 

Barbara is also recognised for her skill in conducting complex and sensitive workplace investigations, including investigations into alleged breaches of the APS Code of Conduct and investigations under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013.

Federal public service has an ‘Asian penalty’ problem

Tom Burton
Tom BurtonGovernment editor

The Australian Public Service has a built-in penalty for being Asian, according to an academic study that shows staff from an English-speaking background are 70 per cent more likely to be promoted to executive-level roles.

The Crawford School of Public Policy study is the first to focus on the promotional prospects of various federal public servant demographic groups. It shows that even Asian people who have lived in Australia since early childhood and who speak good English are not being promoted.

Describing this as a “striking result”, the researchers point to racial factors, noting Australia had a legislated white Australia policy for 75 years.

Asians face a “promotional penalty” in the federal public service, according to Robert Breunig of the ANU Tax and Transfer Policy Institute. Rhett Wyman 

“You can really see that even if they speak English, they’re facing a promotion penalty,” the lead author and head of ANU’s Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Robert Breunig, told The Australian Financial Review.

The study of 20 years of workforce data shows public servants from non-English-speaking backgrounds (NESB) face lower promotion prospects throughout their careers, irrespective of when they migrated to Australia – or even if they were born in Australia or arrived here before kindergarten.

The public service as a whole reflects the diversity of Australia, with about 20 per cent of staff from NESBs. Despite this reflection of the population, over the past two decades, about 96 per cent of promotions to the executive have been awarded to staff with Anglo, Celtic or European names.

Staff from English-speaking backgrounds are about 30 per cent more likely to be promoted to senior analyst, 40 per cent more likely to be promoted to management and 70 per cent more likely to be promoted to the executive level.

The least promoted are Asian groups. Gazette data indicate staff with East Asian/Pacific and South Asian names make up about 9 per cent of all public service promotions, but only about 2 per cent of executive promotions

Asian-born people from an NESB who arrive after the age of five have worse promotion prospects than those from non-Asian NESBs who arrive after the age of five. Asian-born NESBs who arrive before the age of six have similar promotion prospects to Asian-born people from English-speaking backgrounds.

“These two results suggest that there is some ‘Asian penalty’ that is not related to language or cultural assimilation,” the study says.

Unlike the big improvements in promotion prospects for women since explicit targets were introduced in the early 2010s, the situation for people from an NESB have worsened.

“To the degree to which these poor relative promotion prospects are driven by ‘being foreign’ or ‘looking Asian’ as opposed to any characteristics related to productivity, this is a problem for the APS,” the report concludes.

“It is failing to reflect the rich diversity of Australia. Further, if poor outcome prospects lead to reduced work effort [as some studies have suggested], the Australian community is being under-served by the APS.”

Glass ceiling busted

Professor Breunig said the data showed an “incredible improvement for women”, with the reporting finding “no evidence of a ‘glass ceiling’ for women”.

“If you go back to 2004, women were 20 per cent less likely to be promoted than a similar man,” Professor Breunig said. “Fast-forward to 2020, at every level, women are now more likely to be promoted than men.

“If anything, it may have tilted slightly against men.”

This contrasts with data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency that suggests there is still an issue for women’s promotions. A recent survey revealed only one in five women have the highest-paid jobs in the APS, despite holding 57 per cent of all the roles.

Professor Breunig said an explicit target had been set for women over the past 10 years. “Seems like it works,” he observed.

“The general upward trend in women’s relative promotion probabilities suggests that concerted effort and attention over time coupled with dedicated affirmative action policies can raise promotion prospects for [equal employment opportunity] cohorts,” the report concludes.

Diversity Council study of non-white women’sprospects in the broader economy found 65 per cent agreed that these women received fewer opportunities for career advancements than other women.

The researchers said the promotion pathways for staff with a disability also gave cause for concern.

“Our research reveals that at junior and mid-level positions, staff who do not report a disability enjoy better promotional prospects than those with a disability even when they look similar in every other way. At the most senior levels, prospects for the two cohorts even out.” 

Tom Burton has held senior editorial and publishing roles with The Mandarin, The Sydney Morning Herald and as Canberra bureau chief for The Australian Financial Review. He has won three Walkley awards.Connect with Tom on Twitter. Email Tom at