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Boom in Australia’s female business executives belies the lack of women in the wider labor market

Boom in Australia's female business executives belies the lack of women in the wider labor market

When Qantas appointed its new CEO, Vanessa Hudson – the 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 external candidate, Jayne Hrdlika, now heads the airline’s rival, Virgin Australia.

In 2020, only 5 percent of the ASX’s top 20 publicly traded companies were led by women. The Chief Executive Women (CEW) advocacy group warned last year that it would take 100 years for Australian business to reach 40 percent gender balance. Yet the ratio has now suddenly risen to 30 per cent of the ASX20 as some of Australia’s largest telecoms, mining and retail companies appointed a rush of women leaders – such as Sherry Duhe, the interim chief executive of Newcrest Mining, the target of a $19 billion bid.

The rise of the Australian female CEO became apparent at Macquarie’s annual business leaders conference, held in Sydney last week, where fund managers may have attended five consecutive sessions led by female leaders on rare earths, iron ore, oil and gas exploration, telecoms and beyond advertisement.

Macquarie itself appointed its first female CEO in 2018 when it promoted Shemara Wikramanayake to the top position. As of next year, it will have twice as many women on its board as men. Wikramanayake, who previously described the struggle to attract women to financial services jobs, welcomed the increased gender representation which, she said, was “more reflective of the community”.

The ASX – which appointed a female CEO in 2022 – suddenly looks better than the FTSE 100, which has only one female CEO, Emma Walmsley of GSK, in the top 20 largest companies. The recent promotion of Vodafone’s Margherita Della Valle to permanent CEO brings the number of female leaders in the total FTSE 100 to just eight.

The emergence of the new generation of women leaders reflects Australia’s move to broaden the gender base of its political and business makeup in recent years. The Labor Party set a quota in the 1990s for the number of female candidates pre-selected in winnable seats in Parliament, and has consistently increased those quotas to nearly 50:50 today.

The elevation of executives like Hudson and Telstra’s Vicki Brady has been widely celebrated, but with the caveat that the toxic culture of misogyny within Parliament and parts of Australian business cannot be easily wiped out. The reckoning within the country’s mining industry – which has been hit by reports of horrific attacks against female miners – shows that some sectors still have a long way to go.

CEW warns that outside the top companies there are still too few women in CEO feeder roles with profit and loss responsibilities. “Women are typically underrepresented in these roles, with women holding just over one in 10 line management positions in the ASX300 in our most recent census,” said a spokeswoman.

Eliza Littleton, a senior economist at the Australia Institute’s Center for Future Work, said while the surge in female CEO appointments was encouraging, this progress has not yet been reflected in the country’s wider job market. With a gender pay gap of more than 13 percent, women still earn on average much less than their male counterparts. “We won’t see the gender pay gap close until 2053. That is really slow progress. Those on the high end tend to be exceptions to the rule,” Littleton said.

Professional women’s voices played a huge part in electing a Labor government that has pledged to tackle inequality in the workplace. This week’s budget sets out Labour’s policy plan to improve conditions for women in the labor market, including childcare subsidies, paid parental leave and higher wages for care workers. The government has already set up a Task Force for Women’s Economic Equality.

Hudson hopes the rise of a new generation of women leaders will continue, but the full impact of her elevation was felt much 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 mom who wants to lead by example and listening to their reflections last night was incredibly meaningful to me,” she said.


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