I remember sitting in a work in progress workshop with UOW’s CASS network last year, discussing the pilot of my (then proposed, now awarded) DECRA project, the first history of Australian women in corporate leadership. One of the participants, I believe it was Claire Lowrie, looked at my estimates of the number of women in board roles since the 1980s, and asked a very simple question: when was the first Australian woman appointed to a corporate leadership role? I didn’t have a good answer for her. My project uses benchmarking, looking at cohorts of companies every decade or two, and in 1986 there were four women in the group. This expanded 10-fold in the decade to 1997, and doubled every decade since. But who was first?

The not-knowing is an issue unique to the Australian corporate sector. We have immortalised Australia’s pioneering political women, with (albeit insufficient numbers of) monuments, electorates, biographies, banknotes and so on to women such as Edith Cowan (WA), the woman elected to an Australian (in this case State) Parliament; Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney (image above, 1943, credit: Australian War Memorial), the first women in the Australian Federal Parliament; Susan Ryan the first female minister; and Julia Gillard the first Australian female Prime Minister, among others. We know lots about Australia’s pioneering sportswomen, journalists, writers, activists, scientists, and artists, and indeed Susanna De Vries’ apparently “complete” book of heroic Australian women was almost entirely confined to military and ancillary work.

So why do we know comparatively peanuts about Australia’s pioneering corporate women? There is very little interest in the history of Australian corporate women; it is considered a contemporary issue brought on by recent regulatory and professional pressure rather than one warranting historical analysis. Those passionate about the past also seem disinterested: Australian historians, particularly those writing women’s histories, have generally ignored business and corporate life; and Australian business historians have tended to ignore women (Catherine Bishop’s excellent work on women in small business is an exception on both fronts). Demonstratively, recent work summarising the state of play in Australian economic history feature women only as workers, and for their work in the home, rather than agents in business. An unsurprising development given most of the field is comprised of male scholars.

Although it is fun to dunk on the field’s gender bias (I have done so elsewhere, extensively), there are some genuine data issue to consider. One of the reasons we know more about women in political leadership is that this form of leadership is so visible – these women were publicly elected, they ran campaigns, and their roles were very easy to define, and records easy to find. While modern corporate women are visible, and are often a lightning bolt for motivational speaking, public comment, media profiles and so on, this interest is a product of the same forces that brought them into these roles in such numbers: public, shareholder, and regulatory pressure since the 2010s. Before this time, although women were certainly in corporate leadership roles, they were not as visible, and there was less interest in tracking them as pioneers in a male dominated space.

The Australian Financial Review’s ‘Corporate Woman’ weekly column, initially penned by Sue Neales and then a range of other reporters, reveals the lack of interest (or lack of stories) on Australia’s corporate woman leaders in their foundational phases. A survey of the stories run by the column reveal that Australia’s ‘corporate woman’ in the late-1980s and early 1990s was a woman entering the workforce, navigating work and family responsibilities, managing their superannuation and financial independence, and potentially progressing to middle management roles. There was almost no comment on women in C-suite (CEO, CFO, etc) executive roles, or on the board of companies. There was certainly no celebration of the ‘first’ corporate women in the way we have celebrated pioneering women in other facets of society.

So contemporary journalism is not much help to me, previous scholarship is no help to me. Ya girl loves data, and so I am very keen to figure out this puzzle. When designing data on corporate women (and by extension, figuring out who was ‘first’), the following are my considerations at this point:

  1. We have consistent data on top Australian companies from Fleming et al. Each benchmark is more or less comparable to the other, meaning we can look at the top business sector across the century. They have a 1960s benchmark, and one in the 1980s, and as above I know that at some point between those two the first Australian woman was appointed to a leadership role. More specificity on the timing requires more data, and I suspect it will require continuous data on the composition of top company boards throughout the 1980s. Continuous data seems to be achievable given the publication of the ‘top 200’, ‘top 500’ and so on in the Business Review Weekly, but it is still a laborious task relative to other forms of women in leadership.
  2. What do we consider ‘corporate leadership’? In the literature, company leadership comprises the board of directors and the executive team (CEO, CFO, and so on). The third leadership space is company ownership – if we are thinking about company ownership for very large, publicly listed companies (as is the scope of my work), we usually mean an entrepreneur/founder or a family company. I anticipate this to be a minor part of the story: owners/family members haven’t had as big a role in Australian capitalism compared to other countries, and those large family companies in Australia tended to exclude their women from leadership roles (*eye roll*). Sometimes there is overlap between owners and executives (Gina Rinehart is a good example), but most of the women in formal leadership roles will be found through board or executive appointments.

Let me know below – have you designed data like this? What challenges did you face? What do you think the value is in knowing who was ‘first’?