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Girls & Women

Australia's Appointment of a New Major Female CEO Is a Win for Women Everywhere

Why Global Citizen Should Care
Women currently are not treated as equals nor given equal opportunity to climb the corporate ladder. Celebrating the accomplishments of women gives young girls everywhere the encouragement to chase their dreams. Global Citizen campaigns against discrimination and gender inequality. You can take action here.

In a truly landmark accomplishment, Australia's largest and most well-respected investment bank Macquarie Group has hired its first female CEO.

In a move widely applauded by multicultural and gender equality groups, Shemara Wikramanayake will take over from current chief Nicholas Moore in November.

“I look forward to working with the board, management, and our entire Macquarie team to build on Nicholas’ remarkable legacy for the benefit of all our stakeholders,” Wikramanayake announced days prior to the company’s Annual General Meeting.

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Wikramanayake further acknowledged the shortage of women in Australia's finance and banking industries, and offered advice on how to increase the number of women in financial leadership positions.

“The first thing to do is to persuade girls that this is a cool career, and that there’s nothing that makes it more suited to a male than a female,” she stated. “Once women are in this career, we need to empower them to succeed and help them reach the next level.”

Catherine Robson, CEO of financial advisory organisation Affinity Private and a former Macquarie Group employee, believes Wikramanayake’s rise throughout the investment bank had nothing to do with her skin colour or gender or filling a diversity quota, but instead simply through her unparalleled success as an executive.

“It is fantastic to see a woman in that job. But ever better for me has been the reaction. There hasn’t been any skepticism about whether she is capable or whether she got the job because she was a woman,” she told Women’s Agenda. “From all of the people I know there is universal respect that she is the best person for the job. That sort of reaction is very positive for women seeking leadership.”

The daughter of a Sri Lankan migrant, Wikramanayake attended school in London and Sri Lanka before her family moved to Sydney. She attended Sydney’s prestigious Ascham Girls School, before studying commerce and law at the University of New South Wales and went through an advanced management program at Harvard University.

Wikramanayake joined Macquarie Group in 1987 and has worked for the organisation throughout six countries. Over the past five years, Wikramanayake has been one of Australia's highest-paid women and finance executives, taking home an average salary of $17 million.

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The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia Chairperson Mary Patetsis believes Wikramanayake’s promotion is a major win for multiculturalism and gender equality within Australia's often discriminatory corporate sector. 

"FECCA believes that highly skilled people from diverse backgrounds with high levels of corporate and professional experience should be appointed at all levels, including at the CEO and as Non-Executive Directors," Patetsos told SBS.

For women, and particularly women of colour, workplace prejudice is rampant. Pay disparity throughout Australia remains at the same rate it was two decades ago, at an average of 15.3%. Within the financial and insurance sectors, the disparity sits at 29.6%.

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A 2018 Women and the Future of Work Report by the University of Sydney revealed that 31% of the surveyed 2,000 women believed men and women were treated equally at work, whilst 50% of the 500 men surveyed felt equality existed throughout the workplace.

The latest index performance results from the ASX 200, a list of the 200 largest Australian public companies, revealed only 11 of 200 CEOs were women. 

Wikramanayake’s appointment shouldn't be big news. But because hiring a woman of colour for a major corporate position is such a rarity, it is. Wikramanayake’s win is a win for women everywhere. Let’s hope her promotion is a catalyst for change and allows for open discussion about the scarcity of women, particularly women of colour, in C-suite positions Australia-wide.