When Qantas appointed its new chief executive, Vanessa Hudson — its first female leader in a century since the airline was founded — it marked a turning point in the promotion of women to the top of Australia’s largest companies. Hudson’s internal competitor for the top job was a fellow woman, Olivia Wirth, while the most likely outside candidate, Jayne Hrdlika, is now leading the carrier’s rival, Virgin Australia.
In 2020, only 5 per cent of the ASX’s 20 largest listed companies were run by women. The advocacy group Chief Executive Women (CEW) warned last year that it would take 100 years for corporate Australia to achieve a gender balance of 40 per cent. Yet the ratio has now suddenly jumped to 30 per cent of the ASX20 as some of Australia’s largest telecoms, mining and retail companies appointed a rush of female leaders — such as Sherry Duhe, the interim chief executive of Newcrest Mining, which is the target of a $19bn bid.
The rise of the Australian female chief executive was evident at Macquarie’s annual business leaders conference, held in Sydney last week, when fund managers may have watched five consecutive sessions chaired by women leaders covering rare earths, iron ore, oil and gas exploration, telecoms and outdoor advertising.
Macquarie itself appointed its first female chief executive in 2018 when it promoted Shemara Wikramanayake to the top job. From next year it will have twice as many women on its board as men. Wikramanayake, who has previously described the struggle of attracting women to jobs in the financial services industry, welcomed the greater gender representation which, she said, was “more reflective of the community”.
The ASX — which appointed a female chief executive in 2022 — suddenly looks in better shape than the FTSE 100, which only counts one female CEO, GSK’s Emma Walmsley, in its top 20 largest businesses. chief executive takes the number of female leaders in the overall FTSE 100 to only eight.
The rise of the new generation of women leaders reflects Australia’s move to broaden the gender base of its political and corporate make-up in recent years. The Labor party set a quota for the number of female candidates pre-selected in winnable parliamentary seats in the 1990s, and has consistently raised those quotas to close to 50:50 today.
The elevation of executives such as Hudson and Telstra’s Vicki Brady has been widely celebrated but with the caveat that the toxic culture of misogyny within parliament and sections of the Australian business establishment cannot be easily swept away. The reckoning within the country’s mining industry — which has been hit by reports of horrendous assaults on female miners — shows that some sectors have a long way to go.
CEW warns that there are still too few women in CEO feeder roles with profit and loss responsibilities outside the top companies. recent census,” a spokeswoman said.
Eliza Littleton, a senior economist at the Australia Institute’s Center for Future Work, said that while the spate of female chief executive appointments was heartening, this progress was not yet reflected in the country’s broader labor market. With a gender pay gap of more than 13 per cent, women still earn far less on average than their male counterparts. “We won’t see the gender pay gap close until 2053. That’s really slow progress. Those at the high end tend to be exceptions to the rule,” Littleton said .
The votes of professional women played a big role in the election of a Labor government that has promised to address workplace inequality. This week’s budget will set out Labor’s policy plan to improve conditions for women in the labor market in areas such as childcare subsidies, paid parental leave and increased pay for care workers.
Hudson hopes the rise of a new generation of female leaders will continue — but the full impact of her elevation was felt far closer to home. She described telling her two daughters that she had won the competition to take on one of Australia’s most challenging leadership roles “I’ve always been a mother who wants to lead by example and to listen to their reflections last night was incredibly meaningful to me,” she said.