Recently I was invited to contribute an entry on feminist icon/corporate leader Sharyn Cederman to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. I am always impressed with the quality of coverage, care and rigour taken by the editors of the ADB, and I use the resource constantly in my work. Last year I wrote my first entry for the ADB on BHP don Sir Ian McLennan, and as someone who conducts broad, but often surface-level collective biography necessary to understand a group of people, it is always nice to dive into someone’s life and career in detail. I had encountered Sharyn briefly in my forays into Australian banking in the 1990s, but really had no idea about the remarkable life she led.

Sharyn’s career is, I think, emblematic of several of the important contours of Australia’s corporate women. Sharyn was a second-wave feminist activist, entering university and the workforce in the 1970s at a time of immense social change around the role of women. As she progressed in her career, through marriage and parenting, she was perfectly placed to take advantage of increased interest in affirmative action and women’s empowerment in work and leadership throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, Sharyn faced considerable gendered barriers to her work, experiencing formal and informal discrimination in the banking industry. She was part of that first wave of corporate women, carving out territory, making her contribution clear, and adapting and adjusting to the masculine norms of Australia’s corporate world.

Cederman, Sharyn Kay (1948–2000)
by Claire E. F. Wright

Sharyn Kay Cederman (1948–2000), feminist and banker, was born on 23 May 1948 at Motueka, New Zealand, eldest of three children of New Zealand-born parents John Cederman, master builder, and his wife Eunice Margaret, née Dickie, farm worker and office clerk. The family lived at the coastal town of Riwaka on New Zealand’s South Island where Sharyn attended the local primary school and Motueka High School. She was a hockey player and swimmer, and also served as a school prefect. In 1966 she enrolled at Victoria University of Wellington, initially studying science before switching to commerce and administration, though her studies were disrupted when she began full-time work in 1970.

A staunch feminist and supreme organiser, Cederman was one of the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement in New Zealand in the 1970s. She was heavily involved in university student associations and memorably, in 1971, announced from an upturned beer crate in Auckland’s Vulcan Lane the arrival in New Zealand of the National Organisation for Women. The following year she played a leading role in the establishment of the Auckland Women’s Liberation group (1972). Her activism included ‘liberating’ men-only public bars, picketing beauty contests, coordinating consciousness-raising groups, and helping to organise a series of United Women’s Conventions. She was also involved in producing the long-lived feminist magazine Broadsheet, and co-edited one of the foundational texts of the New Zealand women’s liberation movement, Sexist Society (1972). On two occasions she met Queen Elizabeth II, and fondly remembered giving Princess Anne’s husband, Mark Phillips, a ‘free education on … feminism’ (Cederman 1999) during a cocktail function on the Royal Yacht Britannia. She was later a founding member of the United Nations Development Fund for Women Australia (1991) and subsequently served as president of UNIFEM New Zealand.

Cederman was a fierce advocate for women’s health. In 1973 she founded the Organisation for Women’s Health, which helped give ‘birth to the women’s health movement in New Zealand’ (Kedgley 2021, 66), and was responsible for a controversial tour by the American women’s health activist Lorraine Rothman. She was subsequently involved with the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand and Sisters Overseas Service, a covert grassroots organisation that assisted women unable to access abortions in New Zealand to do so in Australia.

Simultaneous with Cederman’s activism was her burgeoning banking career. One of the first women to work in New Zealand’s short-term money market, she began with an early merchant bank—Merbank, a subsidiary of Securitibank—in 1970. In 1972 she became assistant manager before being told that women were not permitted further promotions. Returning to university, she studied and worked at the University of Auckland (BCom, 1977), where she met Edward Robert Haysom, an architect. They married in Auckland in June 1978 and moved to Hawaii where their twin sons, Timothy and Miles, were born in 1980. While abroad, Cederman graduated from the University of Hawaii (MBA, 1980) and worked as a lecturer at Chaminade University of Honolulu (1980–81). The family relocated to Brisbane in 1982 where Haysom and Cederman divorced in the late 1980s.

After beginning a doctorate in marketing at the University of Queensland (1983–85), Cederman worked at the State Government Insurance Office Building Society (later Suncorp Bank) in Brisbane (1985–87) until she was headhunted by Advance Bank Australia for a strategic planning directorship in Sydney. In 1992 she became chief manager of marketing services for Westpac Banking Corporation in Wellington, New Zealand. In this role she was responsible for, among other things, enhancing the bank’s social licence through a program to save the endangered Pōhutukawa tree. In 1995 she returned to Australia, first to Westpac’s Sydney office as head of customer service and then to Melbourne as regional head of marketing.

In 1996 Cederman was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer. Two years later she accepted an out-of-court settlement with Westpac after taking the bank to the Victorian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal and Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. She alleged that shortly after disclosing her diagnosis to senior management, she had been sidelined and demoted after Westpac merged with the Bank of Melbourne. Westpac denied the allegations and as part of the settlement she agreed to resign, subsequently taking up a voluntary position with the Bone Marrow Donor Institute.

Having elected to undergo a critical but risky bone marrow transplant in 1999, Cederman explained: ‘I’m at the point where the end is in sight if I do nothing. There are no other realistic options left’ (Williams 1999, 9). In preparation, she set up a website, twice visited Britain on garden tours, and dedicated time to her sons, including taking them on a holiday to Europe. On 4 November 1999 she went into hospital. In recovery she unexpectedly slipped into a coma and died at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne on 17 January 2000. She was buried in Riwaka cemetery, New Zealand, alongside her father and brother, and was survived by her sons, mother, and sister.

Tall and lean of figure, with a round face and dark hair, Cederman had a direct manner and always moved with purpose. Outside of her work and activism, she spent much of her free time tending to her beloved garden, and was also a spirited supporter of the New Zealand ‘All Blacks,’ a collector of Carlton Ware china, and later a student of Buddhism. Energetic, stalwart, and self-assured, she rose to become one of the leading female executives in Australasian banking and a vocal advocate for women’s interests in the corporate world.

As I reached the end of my research, I still had a several gaps. I had read about Sharyn’s twin sons through her website (which the family maintains to this day) and in media articles around the time of her death. After some shameless internet sleuthing, I connected with Tim. I am so grateful for Tim’s generosity in answering the lingering questions I had, adding some of personal flavour to the entry, and providing photographs. I am also grateful to Emily Gallagher for her careful and erudite editing. I do hope the entry does justice to Sharyn’s remarkable legacy.

You can read the entry here.