This blog post was written by Dr Lauren Samuelsson who, amongst other fabulous things, was employed as a research assistant on my ARC DECRA project in the first half of 2023. The brief: to look at women in corporate leadership, in depth, in a particular company or industry. Lauren really delivered, and her article, recently published by Australian Feminist Studies (here), is a skilful and engaging analysis of Australian postfeminism and gendered leadership for three of Australia’s leading media women. Keep reading to find out more…

Ita Buttrose ends her five-year tenure as Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this month. It is the most recent step in her long, mostly illustrious, career in media leadership. During that career she was the founding editor of Cleo, the editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly (the Weekly), a board member at both Australian Consolidated Press and News Limited, the first woman editor of a daily metropolitan newspaper, and CEO of her own company, Capricorn Publishing Pty Ltd. While Buttrose may be the most well-known media woman in Australia, from the late 1980s women’s magazine editors Dulcie Boling and Nene King were also appointed to corporate leadership roles, including board positions at Channel Seven and Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd. Looking at these three women, we may think that Australia’s media industry offers opportunities for women to ‘break the glass ceiling’. However, these women were exceptional, breaking into an industry that was (and still is) profoundly masculine. While women make up around fifty per cent of the total journalistic workforce, few are employed in upper-management and governance roles.

As a historian who draws on women’s magazines—the foundation of Buttrose, Boling and King’s careers—in my work, I was absolutely thrilled to be able to research these women under Claire’s DECRA. My article on them, recently published in Australian Feminist Studies, interrogates the way that the mediated construction of their career successes (and failures) reinforced gendered assumptions of women’s leadership capabilities. Elite women such as Buttrose, Boling and King had the power to influence and normalise particular leadership behaviours yet had to tread a fine line in carefully balancing their ‘feminine’ traits within the ‘masculine’ restraints of the media industry. This is still a problem for contemporary corporate women in our ‘postfeminist’ environment.

The idea of a ‘postfeminist sensibility’ arose in the late 1990s—it entangles notions of female empowerment with neoliberal ideals of personal achievement, individualism and gender essentialism. It has become ‘virtually hegemonic’ in the way that gender is constructed today. I contend that the way that Buttrose, Boling, and King’s careers were constructed and represented in the media, by themselves and others, is evidence of a nascent postfeminist conception of Australian corporate women from the 1970s, through the 1990s, much earlier than we would necessarily suspect.

Dulcie Boling and Nene King have recently been depicted through the TV series Paper Giants.

Writing this article was a fantastic opportunity for me to work in an area adjacent to my main research focus—food history. As my next research project will address more contemporary history, this article also helped me think about the way that historical constructions of gendered behaviours still resonate today. I’d like to thank all of those scholars who helped me get this article published—Claire E F Wright, the Colonial and Settler Studies Work in Progress Group, and of course the anonymous reviewers whose suggestions helped me to refine and polish this article.

‘Ita Buttrose, Dulcie Boling, and Nene King: the construction of “idealised feminine leadership” in the Australian media, 1972-1999’ has been published open access by Australian Feminist Studies. You can find it here. You can also find out about my other work at www.laurensamuelsson.com.