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Trailblazing Female Business Leaders – the AFR’s Top 7

The following list of seven female business leaders who busted through the glass ceiling and had a lasting impact on the Australian economy and society was compiled with assistance from leading women across many disciplines. All of them were trailblazers, simply because men have dominated so much of the business landscape for so long. 

The women were chosen through a process of consensus. Each of the women approached by the Financial Review was asked to name their top seven leaders. Chanticleer compiled the votes and ranked them by the most votes received. 

There was agreement that each of these women has shown service for others. All have shown commitment in their chosen discipline and tenacity to climb through the senior ranks of male-dominated industries, and in some cases, to remain at the top for decades. 

They are admired not just for carving out “firsts” in business, but also for the way they kept the door propped open once they got there and went about championing other women in business.

Catherine Livingstone (Chairwoman, Commonwealth Bank of Australia): 

As the first female CEO of an ASX-listed company (Cochlear) and first female chairwoman of a big four bank, Livingstone helped normalise women being powerful and prominent. She is highly respected for her attention to detail and unswerving moral compass. Livingstone’s acute intelligence and her qualities as an excellent listener have been critical to the remediation and rebuilding at CBA, including making many tough decisions. She won praise for her contribution to education and science. 

Ita Buttrose (Chairwoman, ABC): 

Started in journalism as a copy girl at The Australian Women’s Weekly and worked her way to the top of a media company run by two of the country’s hardest and most successful task masters, Sir Frank Packer and Kerry Packer. As the inaugural editor of Cleo in 1971, she showed a masterful understanding of publishing that caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch, who employed her at News Corp. She is hailed for being an inspiration to young women. 

Carla Zampatti (Fashion):

When she died in April, the business world was reawakened to the enormity of her achievements. She was a migrant and a young single mother who built a business in an industry littered with failures. Also known as a shrewd property investor, Zampatti was a successful non-executive director and philanthropist. 

Gail Kelly (former CEO, Westpac Banking Corp): 

Became the first female CEO of a major Australian bank, a role she held for seven years. In 2010 she was named the 8th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes. She broke down perceptions about women and their ability to lead. As one observer said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” 

Gina Rinehart (Executive Chairwoman, Hancock Prospecting): 

In the cut-throat world of mining, she stands out for building a globally significant company. Rinehart took the risks necessary to turn her inheritance into the country’s most valuable private company. Her support for Australian athletes in the last few years clearly helped Australia to equal our most successful Olympics in Tokyo. 

Helen Lynch (former Westpac executive): 

Banking has long played an outsized role in Australia’s business landscape. Lynch was the first female bank manager in Australia and the first woman to directly report to a bank CEO. She capped a long career with diverse contributions at board level, including chairwoman of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. She is said to be the most supportive of female non-executives in Australia.

Jillian Broadbent (Director, Macquarie Group): 

Was part of the incredible team at Bankers Trust in the 1980s that included Rob Ferguson, Rowan Ross and Ian Martin. Broadbent ran the capital markets team. She is one of Australia’s leading non-executive directors and has ranged across many sectors. She is thoughtful, encouraging, incisive and played a critical role in preparation of APRA’s prudential review of CBA. One close observer said some men who have worked with her may make more noise and try for more glory, but she gets things done. 

The following women were ranked next in the list and deserve another column later: 

Eve Mahlab, Shemara Wikramanayake, Christine Holgate, Ann Sherry, Melanie Perkins, Margaret Jackson, Kerry Schott, Janet Holmes a Court, and Carolyn Hewson.


This article was published in the Australian Financial Review on 16th August 2021 in the Chanticleer section, and written by Tony Boyd.

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