July is conference time. It’s been a few years since we have had a genuine conference season, and I’ll tell you what it is exhausting and joyful! I have just come back from the Australian Historical Association conference in Geelong, where I convened the economic history stream, and hosted the ‘Urgent Histories of Australian Capitalism’ roundtable. It was great to see new work from colleagues and reflect on how far we have come as economic (and economic-adjacent) historians working in the history discipline.

I am also about to head to Paris (omg!) for what I like to call the Economic History Olympics (no one else calls it that), aka the World Economic History Congress. I’ll be on a few different papers, including two side chicks: one on economic history in Australia (with Andy Seltzer and Martin Shanahan); one on foreign multinational companies (with Pierre van der Eng and Simon Ville). My main paper will be in a session with  fabulous colleagues working on women in corporate leadership over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, organised by Stéphanie Ginalski. I trialled this work out in Geelong last week, and the paper is called “Pipelines and catalysts: A collective life history of Australian women in corporate leadership”. I draw on prosopography (collective life history) data, and a Bourdieusian analysis of capitals to understand the intersectional profile of Australia’s corporate women, and unpack why they all look like this:

corporate women, corporate woman, Australian corporate women, Australian women in corporate leadership, business history, Australian business history, economic history, academia, conferences

Source: The Australian. Christine Holgate (front).

My starting point is a debate had in the media a couple of years ago. In the blue corner, former Australian competition watchdog chairman Graeme Samuel observed an “impenetrable” club of women keeping other women out of the boardroom. Arguing that the group of female directors was so tight it was hampering diversity, he commented that “there are so many wonderful female individuals out there that have got extraordinary expertise and the courage to challenge. But they’re not allowed in. You know why? They’re not a name”. In the red corner were the largely wealthy, white women who occupy corporate leadership roles, who argued that snide comments like these from a member of the group (men) who still dominate corporate leadership (to the tune of 65% of board roles, 75% of executive roles, and 90% of CEO roles) was pretty tone deaf to the real problem. However, both things can be true: men hold the balance of power in Australian corporate leadership, and yet the types of women who occupy roles paints a very homogenous picture of who is accepted (and acceptable) in the corporate world.

Why do people get appointed to leadership roles? There are lots of potential answers: institutional theory; social network or social capital theory; agency theory; corporate resource dependence; financial hegemony and so on. All of us, labouring under capitalism as we do, like to thing there are ‘merit’ reasons for the reasons we get promotions, or get appointed to things. This is the ‘business case’ perspective – corporate women have been appointed based on alignment between their personal characteristics and the requirements of the role (professional skills and accreditation; career path). And this is true, except this capitalism ‘myth of merit’ hides a bunch intersectional bits and bobs that makes corporate leadership a very uneven playing field.

Take career path. In order to appointed to a board position, you usually have to be accredited in a key profession (accounting, law, investment banking) and progress through the management ranks either in a large firm itself or in a professional services firm. You then often become a salaried manager or ‘executive’ (CEO, CFO or similar) in that firm, before ‘retiring’ or embarking on a second career as a non-executive director. The professional skills you accrue are very important for the work you do as a director, with knowledge gained in different parts of the corporate world, and knowledge of legal or regulatory environments allowing you to oversee operations and make sound recommendations. Merit, right?

However, we know that the corporate labour market in Australia is very unequal with regards to ethnicity. Asian-Australians, for example, have been important in business and commerce since the nineteenth century, and have entered relevant professions such as accountancy at similar rates to the rest of the populace, but have been promoted at far lower rates than their white counterparts. The lack of ethnic diversity though the upper levels of the corporate-professional hierarchy has meant there are fewer non-white leaders with what is seen as the necessary experience to be appointed to director roles. Non-white folks have thus held the required ability and accreditation, or ‘merit’, but have been arbitrarily excluded from accruing valued capital for corporate leadership throughout their careers. Bourdieu calls this symbolic violence.

The career pipeline has also enforced a homogenous wealth profile for women. More so than for corporate men, the time (day to day and in terms of years of service) taken to move through the corporate-professional hierarchy has ensured that those women who do reach the corporate elite are wealthy. Australian women still take on the lion’s share of childrearing, and yet face inadequate support and career stigma when they do so. Those women who have become corporate leaders are thus the relatively small number of privileged women who have been able to overcome these barriers, with wealth (the ability to afford full time child care) buying women the ability to stay in the workforce to a degree acceptable to the structures of male corporate capital.

Age, geography, social activities, class. All of these deeply personal characteristics reveals intersectional inequalities in the corporate labour market that masquerade as “merit”. A better understanding of women’s economic, social, cultural and symbolic capitals reveals the way seemingly merit-based appointments of corporate women have existed within the hidden rules of the game of Australian corporate leadership, and have been based on an intersectional vision of what constitutes valuable ‘corporate capital’. It also highlights the work still left to be done with regards to corporate diversity, that while it is a good step on the road, appointing women to corporate leadership roles is not enough for sustainable and meaningful improvements in equality.

You can read more about this sort of work here and here! Have a great conference season!