Encouraging women to apply for senior roles in the Government Sector

Although the proportion of women in senior leadership roles in the NSW Government Sector has increased, it remains significantly below parity at 40%. We partnered with the Public Service Commission and the Customer Service, Stronger Communities and Transport clusters to increase the proportion of women applying for senior leader roles.

We designed and tested two behaviourally informed interventions, an email and a phone call, to increase the proportion of women reapplying for senior roles in the NSW Government. The combined behavioural interventions increased the likelihood women would reapply for a senior role by 27% and significantly reduced the gender gap between men and women reapplying for senior roles from 45% to just 4%.


In 2015, the Premier set an ambitious target to increase the proportion of women in senior leadership roles in the NSW Government sector to 50% by 2025. Since this time, the representation of women has steadily increased from 33% to 40%. While this increase is an important step, there is still a considerable way to go. Greater gender diversity in senior leadership can lead to better performance and innovation. This makes gender parity an imperative to delivering a stronger economy and better outcomes for the people of NSW. 

What we did

 The team took an innovative, data-driven approach to understanding the barriers and enablers to women in the NSW Government Sector. We analysed trends in over 1.1 million applications over five years, conducted 65 interviews and received survey responses from over 400 applicants. This research was used to generate insights and design innovative interventions to advance gender equality in senior roles in the government.

Key insights Key insights from this research were:

  • Women were less likely to apply for senior roles compared to men in all clusters of government.
  • In comparison to men, women were much more likely to doubt their skills, despite on average being more likely to be hired when they applied for roles.
  • Men were significantly more likely than women to reapply for a senior role within six months after they had narrowly missed out. 

Using insights from this research, we developed two behaviourally informed interventions designed to encourage women to reapply for senior roles after they narrowly missed out. The interventions were an email and a phone call with a recruitment manager that focused on how well the applicant had done and encouraged them to apply again.

Business as usual (BAU) recruitment for most candidates tends to end with a generic email advising that their application was not successful. Both interventions leverage the peak-end rule by trying to improve the conclusion to the recruitment process. The behavioural interventions aimed to disrupt this final impression which could have disproportionately large impact on the candidates’ overall experience.

We tested these interventions using an RCT design with 1,614 candidates randomly allocated to receive BAU recruitment processes, a behaviourally informed email only or the behaviourally informed email and phone call. 

What we learnt

Two weeks after receiving the behavioural intervention (or not), candidates were sent a survey to record their overall satisfaction with the recruitment process, intention to reapply and likelihood to refer a colleague to apply for a role with the NSW Government.

We then measured whether candidates reapplied for another senior role in the NSW Government within three and six months after receiving the interventions.


Of the 29% of candidates involved in the trial who completed the survey, the interventions had a significant impact on candidates’ self-reported intention to reapply for a senior role. Receiving a behaviourally informed email significantly increased the likelihood candidates’ intentions to reapply for senior roles, from 49.2% to 68.1% (p < 0.01). Receiving a behaviourally informed phone call from a recruitment manger as well as the email increased this further to 75.6% (p < 0.001) (see Figure 1). The observed effect of the phone call was even larger for women, with 82.7% of female applicants who received the phone call and the email reporting that they would reapply for another role in the NSW Government.

Candidates’ satisfaction and optimism with the recruitment process increased in a similar way as did their likelihood to refer a colleague to apply for a role with the NSW Government.

“That’s a good gesture. Absolutely felt great about receiving the email”
- candidate in the trial


“really encouraging… the best recruitment I've been involved in"
- candidate in the trial

But did the interventions lead to actual behaviour change?

Overall, the interventions did not lead to greater reapplication rates than control (all p values > 0.20). However, this was because the interventions had a different impact depending on whether the candidate was male or female. 

After 6 months 52% of women who received the BI interventions had reapplied compared to only 41% of women who received BAU recruitment processes – a 27% increase (p=0.096). The interventions significantly reduced the gender gap in likelihood to reapply within 6 months.

Without the intervention, there was a significant gender difference in reapplication rates. Of the male candidates, 59.5% reapplied compared to 41% of women. That is, men were 45% more likely to reapply than women (p < 0.001). The BI interventions reduce this gender gap to 12% in the email condition (a 5.5 percentage point difference), and just 4% in the phone and email condition (a 2.2 percentage point difference).

Although men were still more likely to reapply, the difference between men and women was no longer statistically significant; a result that strongly contributes to the policy intent of increasing women in senior leadership. 

When scaled across the entire NSW Government we estimate this could increase the proportion of women in senior roles by up to .5% each year and make a significant contribution to achieving equal gender representation in senior roles. 

Next steps

The simple, low cost interventions are now being scaled across the NSW Government, making better candidate care part of the BAU recruitment process. The Public Service Commission has developed a toolkit to help recruitment managers implement the interventions in their organisations.

Published: 2 April 2018

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