Above the glass ceiling: Australian women in corporate leadership

Improving the representation of women in leadership roles is good business, and fundamental to human rights. 

Although we know how important having women in leadership is, we know very little about the diverse ways women have accessed positions of leadership in Australia, changes in their pathways into leadership roles, or their long-term influence on strategy and decision-making. 

This project aims to expand our understanding of Australian business history by undertaking the first comprehensive history of women in corporate leadership in Australia across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Specifically:

  1. The diverse ways women have participated in corporate leadership in Australia since Federation.
  2. Women’s pathways to positions of corporate leadership, including the role of women’s various capitals in relation to broader structures of power in Australian society.
  3. Explore the influence of Australia’s corporate women on company strategy and decision-making, including the degree to which they have maintained or challenged the status quo.

I’m using an interdisciplinary approach (combining, management, corporate governance, business history and Bourdieu’s analysis of capitals) and a multi-method design (prosopography, social network analysis, oral history, narrative analysis) to provide a rich and nuanced history of Australian women in corporate leadership roles.  

Latest happenings

Publication: Small worlds: Institutional isomorphism and Australia’s corporate elite, 1910-2018

How has managerial capitalism influenced Australia’s board appointments? This article uses prosopography to examine the gender, race, class and social composition of Australia’s top interlocked directors between 1910 and 2018. Applying institutional theory, it analyses the way institutional isomorphisms have increased both the dominance of professionals in company leadership, and the professional standards of board members, meaning those with the necessary education, accreditation, experience and time to dedicate to company directorships came from an increasingly narrow set of life histories. At the same time, the ‘destructuration’ of the elite’s gender norms has increased the appointment of women in recent decades. 

Publication (Lauren Samuelsson): Ita Buttrose, Dulcie Boling, and Nene King: the construction of ‘idealised feminine leadership’ in the Australian media, 1972-1999

Lauren, in her skilful and engaging analysis of three of Australia’s leading media women, examines the way that their careers were constructed (in the media, by themselves and others) to reinforce gendered assumptions regarding women’s leadership capabilities. These constructions evidence a nascent postfeminist conception of women in power in Australia from the 1970s through to the 1990s. The article suggests that the ability (or not) of Buttrose, Boling, and King to conform to idealised ‘feminine’ leadership ideals reinforced (rather than challenged) the highly gendered nature of Australian corporate media leadership and governance.

Feminist activists in Australia

Publication: Interrogating diversity: Feminism and the destructuration of Australian board appointment practices

We integrate the analysis of social diversity (structural connections) and demographic diversity amongst ASX50 boards in 2019 and 2023. Social network analysis (SNA) reveals a closely connected corporate community, with prosopography data identifying a narrow range of ‘acceptable’ demographic characteristics. We extend institutional theory by examining the role of global social movements (GSMs) for the destructuration of board appointment practices, and the resulting uneven progress on equality. We argue that activism from the global feminist movement has applied multi-dimensional coercive and normative pressures to develop a ‘pipeline’ and ‘catalyst’ for women’s board appointments. Absence of targeted action on other diversities, and the intensification of directors’ professional requirements, has institutionalised the group’s social and demographic profile. 

Publication: Sharyn Kay Cederman for the Australian Dictionary of Biography (4th July 2023).

Biography of feminist and banker Sharyn Kay Cederman, for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Sharyn’s career is 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.

women in leadership ethnic diversity in leadership corporate governance

Publication: The Whiteboard: Decoupling of ethnic and gender diversity reporting and practice in corporate Australia, Australian Journal of Management (21st April 2023).

Is there a disconnect between companies saying they support diversity, and their actual practice of appointing diverse leaders? We explore the extent and change over time of both gender and ethnic diversity in leadership and disclosure for Australia’s largest firms from 2005 to 2021. Using institutional theory, we compare the isomorphisms driving change, and examine the extent to which there is rhetorical decoupling between diversity disclosure and practice. We find that there has been close alignment between diversity reporting and women in leadership, but a stark disconnect between general public commitment to diversity, and the practice of appointing non-white corporate leaders.

Five women at an event about women in corporate leadership

Event: Celebrating International Women's Day at UTS Business School (8th March 2023).

Panel event with Anne Summers (AO), Verity Firth (AM), Anna Bedford, and Tarunna Sebastian (chaired by Bronwen Dalton). We discussed the exceptional leadership contributions women are making in various fields, and the strategies to support gender equality. 

Event: DECRA workshop on 'Women and Australian business history', UTS (9 February 2023).

The event involved a range of scholars interested in the history of women and business in Australia. Contributors shared new research on women in the professions; women in (paid and unpaid) employment; women entrepreneurs and side-hustlers; and women in agriculture. This event is the first time folks working on women and business history have been brought together in Australia. It was great to be able to build capacity in this area and fill a major gap in our understanding of the way enterprise has developed. 

Author panel: Chapter on Australian women in corporate leadership for Lessons from History, Gleebooks, Glebe (12th October 2022).

Does history repeat itself in meaningful ways, or is each problem unique? How can a hands-on approach to Australian history enhance our understanding of the present and prepare us for the future? A thought-provoking panel with Niro Kandasamy (Sydney) and Ann Curthoys (Sydney) on our contributions to Lessons from History – a new collection of essays that shows how the past provides insight that can guide us in future.

Author panel: Chapter on Australian women in corporate leadership for Lessons from History, History Week at Inner West Libraries (9th September 2022).

Does history repeat itself in meaningful ways, or is each problem unique? How can a hands-on approach to Australian history enhance our understanding of the present and prepare us for the future? Myself and Dr Zora Simic in a thought-provoking discussion inspired by Lessons from History – a new collection of essays that shows how the past provides insight that can guide us in future.

Publication: Book chapter in 'Lessons from History', NewSouth (1st July 2023).

The chapter, titled ‘Pipelines and catalysts: Lessons from the history of women in corporate leadership’, argues that history has important lessons for those who seek to make sustainable, intersectional improvements in diversity in leadership. The experiences of female board members in the past suggest we need to build pathways for improving access and diversity. Specifically, in order to achieve real reform we need to address blockages in the ‘pipeline’ to the boardroom (that is, structural career barriers) and shore up the ‘catalysts’ (or external and regulatory pressures) that force change on staid institutions. 

Opinion piece: Rhetorical decoupling of gender and ethnic diversity in corporate Australia, Emerald Online (31st May 2022).

Blog for Emerald Publishing based on a recent working paper. The paper explores rhetorical decoupling (difference between disclosure and action) between ethnic and gender diversity disclosure and the leadership appointment practices of large Australian companies.

women in corporate leadership Australia Australian business history

Publication: The Whiteboard: Decoupling Diversity Reporting and Practice in Corporate Australia, Proceedings of the 2022 Academy of Management Meeting (25 March 2022).

Nominated for best paper at the 2022 Academy of Management Annual Meeting.  We explore the extent and change over time of both gender and ethnic diversity in leadership, and diversity disclosure in company annual reports. We interpret our findings with institutional theory, comparing the institutional ismorphisms driving change in each organisational form, and examining the extent to which there is rhetorical decoupling between them. 

Radio interview/podcast: ‘Women in Leadership: Business & Politics’, Think: Business Futures on 2ser 107.3 (12th April 2022).

The second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s brought sweeping changes to women’s roles in both business and politics. This episode we explore the history of women in leadership. We ask what does the landscape of women in leadership looks like today? What the continuing barriers are, and how we can progress to not only increase the number of women in leadership positions but also to expand the diversity of women in these roles.

Publication: 'Good wives and corporate leaders: Duality in women’s access to Australia’s top company boards, 1910–2018', Business History (5th December 2021).

Examines Australian women in corporate leadership since 1910, revealing the role of networks and personal characteristics for access to positions of corporate influence. From 1910 to 1964, corporate women were cast as the ‘good wife’, with marriage and kinship affording some the ability to influence the networks of corporate men, and the fortunes of the companies they controlled. Since the 1980s, the number of women directors has grown substantially, and women have come to occupy central positions in director network. Efforts by government, regulators and professional associations have improved the number of women in leadership, their importance in the community, and their ability to integrate with core male board members. 



ARC DECRA Fellow at UTS Business School


I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. In particular, I acknowledge that I live and work on the unceded lands of the Dharawal and Gadigal people. This always was, and always will be Aboriginal land. I pay my respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples today.

All thoughts and opinions posted on this website are my own, and not reflective of the institutions I may represent.

Copyright 2022 Claire E. F. Wright