I am so relieved. This one was my white whale. For some good reasons (and some unnecessary reasons), this article spent a long time in revisions. The peer review process is transformational most of the time. Having several silent co-authors, who are expert in their field and invested in making your article the best it can be, is an enormous gift. This article started as part of my project on interlocking directorates, and I aimed to understand the people, not just the companies, that created and maintained interlocks. In doing so, Hannah Forsyth and I wrote about the finding – which was surprising at the time but if you have read her fantastic book Virtue Capitalists, not surprising at all – that rather than ruling families, it was top professionals who ran the show. Halfway through, I started my DECRA on women in corporate leadership, which highlighted that improvements in the status of women over the last 30 years is the exception rather than the rule (here and here). I also upskilled in institutional theory, and started to think about the way various regulations, professional standards, activist movements and so on encourage companies to conform with one another regarding their leadership appointments (here and here). Revisions covered all of these professional changes, and has meant that the final article is the same in substance, but very different in interpretation, from what Ben and I first wrote in the second half of 2020.

We use prosopography, a method that examines a group’s demographic, social, professional and community characteristics through analysis of their collective life histories. Here, we include cohorts of those who held multiple board positions within Australia’s top 100 non-financial firms, and top 25 financial companies. Prosopography is an underutilised but extraordinarily powerful historical method, allowing you to contextualise individual lives within a rich understanding of the normal or typical life of someone in that group. For example, although received wisdom (through biographies, company histories and so on) led us to believe that most corporate leaders came from wealthy ruling families, understanding the background of everyone within that group revealed that boring accountants actually held most of the interlocked board seats. Although collecting prosopography data can be a real bore, and finding data of sufficient coverage sometimes a challenge, I do think that having an idea of what is normal or typical is necessary for biographies to have real grounding in and for society.

Our findings are twofold: first, that the place of women in the elite has improved dramatically from the 1980s onwards. Second, that this stands in contrast to the long run trend in all of the other life history categories. Members’ age, ethnicity, place of birth and residence, education, career path and social and community activities have all become more similar over time, presenting a corporate elite that has occupied increasingly ‘small worlds’, even as its gender profile diversified. Rather than an opening, or closing, of the elite over time, our results suggest there has been simultaneous homogenisation of the elite in most categories, alongside the ‘destructuration’ of its gender norms.

We provide an institutional explanation for these results. Improvement in the place of women in the elite has been the result of targeted, feminist efforts, first to improve the opportunities of women in work (more specifically corporate-professional work), and then to improve their place in senior leadership positions. I have written about this process extensively elsewhere (see here and here). Regarding the homogenisation of most other categories, we lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of Australian managerial capitalism. Professionals have long dominated Australian corporate leadership, with the foundations of corporate expansion necessitating trust in verified, authoritative, expert knowledge (it was also virtuous knowledge, as Hannah shows – go read her book immediately). Professionals loved this, and in order to maintain their jurisdiction over corporate work (rent-seeking for my economist babes), the professions standardised their occupational endeavours (accreditation), enclosed cognitive boundaries (training or qualifications), and developed interpersonal networks (professional associations) to make sure members were identifiable to each other and the outside world. These institutions contributed to the dominance of professionals in the corporate elite.

Over time, as corporations increased in size and complexity (including new national markets, finance arrangements, legislation, microeconomic reform, international competition and so on), they were increasingly reliant on professional expertise, and professions did all they could to maintain their place in corporate expansion. The need to co-ordinate increasingly large, sophisticated and complex organisations also encouraged the growth of the small management (and management consultancy) profession that had existed in Australia since the 1930s. Universities began offering degrees in management – including postgraduate qualifications such as the MBA – and the number of company directors trained and working in ‘management’ grew. ‘Board member’ also became its own profession, engaging in the same process of enclosure as accounting and law did much earlier. As a result, cohorts composed of those from a range of career pathways – including entrepreneurs, public servants, and hereditary appointments – were increasingly replaced by those from a narrow range of corporate professions.

The elite’s professionalisation not only narrowed the acceptable education and career paths of the elite, but had intersectional consequences for the other categories. Narrowing career paths influenced the age profile (specifically age variance) of the group. The intensification of ‘merit’-based criteria prevented those from outside of the upper middle class – who may have an undergrad education but not from an elite university; or had worked as an accountant but not for a top tier firm – from accessing leadership positions. All workplaces are racist of course, but even more so for elite universities and professional firms, with non-white Australians entering relevant professions at similar rates, but blocked from appointments and promotion. The elite’s professionalisation also encouraged social sameness, with a range of clubs and professional interests replaced by membership of, for example, the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Importantly, this reveals the way that professional standards are not neutral, but serve to reinforce inequality by creating boundaries (and justification for those boundaries) that often fall along racial, gendered, classist, ableist, or homophobic lines. It reveals that, in the absence of destructuration, the elite’s sameness can be self-sustaining, with companies tending to conform with their peers in their appointment practices. Finally, it reveals that organisational change (in the case improvement in the place of women) is never assured, but rather the outcome of dedicated, multifaceted efforts by a range of stakeholders. Demonstratively, the neglect of diversity other than gender has has intersectional consequences for corporate women, with those women who have progressed to board positions (for the most part) doing so by conforming with the group’s age, ethnic, class and professional norms.

Our article, ‘Small worlds: Institutional isomorphism and Australia’s corporate elite, 1910–2018’, has just been published open access in Business History. You can access it from the journal here, or a pre-print version of the article here.