It was a very busy July! After several years of virtual conferences – and the very real ongoing impacts of COVID-19 hanging over us – I attended two in person conferences between late-June and late-July. The first was the Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference in Geelong, discussed here. Next was the Economic History Olympics, aka the World Economic History Congress (WEHC), in Paris.

I presented a similar paper to the AHA, on intersectional diversity and Australia’s corporate women. I use the life history of Australia’s corporate women, interpreted through Bourdieu’s analysis of capital, habitus and field, to understand the way the seemingly merit-based appointment practices of large corporations obfuscate intersectional privilege. Linking the individual and the socio-structural reveals the way gender, race and class are embedded in the hidden rules of the game in Australian corporate leadership.

The main value of this session was comparative business history. A bit of background: the WEHC session brought together the editors and (many of) the chapter authors of the forthcoming special issue of Business History on women in corporate networks. Our work together is drawn from our similar data on women in corporate leadership over the twentieth and early twenty-first century. In my case, the data on Australian was the direct result of my previous project on interlocking directorates (my first post-doc at Macquarie, see here). In order to find interlocked directors, I needed the names of all top company directors, which gave me the growth of women in board positions since the 1980s. I also looked at life history data for interlocked directors, including schooling, career path, family, social networks and so on. This, in part, highlighted the informal role that women have played in Australia’s corporate community before their formal introduction to the corporate network in the 1980s. These two insights were the basis of my research design for the DECRA, and are amongst the main empirical contributions of the pilot paper published in the Business History special issue.

The design of my interlocking directorates project – collecting data comparable to my colleagues internationally – is one of those important moments of career path dependency. I designed that project based on the sample and benchmarks used in David and Westerhuis’ The Power of Corporate Networks; combined with Fleming et al.’s The Big End of Town. Both volumes were published before my time, with The Big End of Town (2004) surveying the progress of big business in Australia and having already done the hard work of figuring out the top Australian firms at benchmarks from 1910 through to the end of the twentieth century. Chapters in The Power of Corporate Networks (2014), remarkably, used similar samples (either the top 125 or top 250 depending on the size of the economy), at similar benchmarks (once a generation or so throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century). Modelling on the David and Westerhuis volume was an excellent call in hindsight, as it meant that my data was comparable to work internationally. Several of the 2014 chapter authors began to turn their data on top company directors to study women in leadership, with this the origin of the Business History special issue.

This comparative data allows us to get outside our own infinitely complex country histories to observe comparable or even transnational changes in women’s empowerment and the progress of women in corporate leadership across the second half of the twentieth century. We were each asked to observe the different moments when women entered company boardrooms, the mechanisms that contributed to women’s appointments, the types of companies or sectors that included women, and the ways women were included (or not) in the broader corporate network. In the session, the editors observed several key points of comparison between countries:

  1. Dense corporate networks (the ‘old boys’ club’) were initially an obstacle for women’s entry into the boardroom; with the fracturing of traditional corporate networks from the 1980s and 1990s enabling women to enter boardrooms.
  2. Family firms were important for early inclusion of women in leadership, with wives, sisters and daughters the first ‘wave’ of female directors in most countries from the early twentieth century.
  3. The 1970s was a major turning point in each of the contributions, with the legal, social and professional implications of the second wave feminist Women’s Movement contributing to gradual inclusion of women in corporate leadership positions.
  4. In the twentieth century, affirmation of ‘board diversity’ as a specific goal improved the position of women in leadership in several countries.
  5. The ‘transnational corporate elite’ was observed in several places, with globalisation and the growing presence of multinational firms increasing the international mobility of corporate women.

The Australian case is different to other countries in the first half of the twentieth century, with no inclusion of women in family firms, and no real fracturing of the ‘old boys club’. However, Australia then becomes the model for the dynamics of the second period, with second wave feminism, board diversity and so on increasing the number of women in formal leadership from zero prior to the 1980s, to 25% by 2018. This comparative context prompts a number of questions for my own work: why did Australian family firms not include their women? Why is Australia’s corporate community still so cohesive (as opposed to fractured) and national (as opposed to global or transnational)? Why did Italy and Australia observe very similar dynamics in the inclusion of women on boards, despite incredibly different cultures, policy instruments, and company/industrial histories? These are all questions I am excited to explore more with my colleagues.

– Claire