Barbara Cail 5 things i've learnt

5 lessons on women and leadership

CEW Member,
Founding member of CEW


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Welcome to the latest step in the evolution of Chief Executive Women: our first blog post. And it is an evolution. When I browse the membership list of Chief Executive Women, I am deeply gratified. We now number more than 300 members representing a cornucopia of women’s enormous leadership capacity and talent.

It is so very different from the organisation I founded 30 years ago – but in many respects it is the same. CEW remains unique in the leadership firmament. The market place is there to chase profits. Academia and various institutes are there to teach leadership. Chief Executive Women’s members DO leadership. There is a big difference, and this is where CEW is one of Australia’s most powerful advocates for women’s leadership and gender balance. We have walked the walk.

The history of how our organisation was born and grew can be found here.

The initial group was heavily weighted towards entrepreneurs – Carla Zampatti, Imelda Roche and Gillian Franklin among others – who remain among Australia’s top 30 women entrepreneurs and who are still members of CEW.

We were mainly entrepreneurs partly because of the times: if a woman wanted to run a business, she had to launch that business herself. These days we find many more women in the top tier of Australian leadership in business, government, non-profits and academia.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the women who have become leaders in their fields. Our new blog aims to bring you regular insights from CEW members, our voices of experience.

Let me start by telling you some of the things I know about what women can achieve when their aim is to work together to see improvements for all women:

  1. Resist any urge for complacency. It takes 30 years for a revolution to start and then become mainstream. Social history shows us this. And while women have gained a critical mass in business, professions, and academia in the past 30 years, men still own a disproportionate amount of leadership and power. Our energy and focus on balancing the distribution of leadership and power must be continuous.
  2. Never underestimate the collective efforts of determined women. Over CEW’s 30-year history I have witnessed and relished a rich diversity of leadership skills provided by the members. There is enormous power in being dedicated to making a difference. And CEW is measurably making a difference through its scholarships, its research partnerships, its CEO Conversations, its Leaders Program, and other initiatives. I remain astonished at and enormously grateful for the generosity of time and talent invested by so many women.
  3. It is lonely at the top. We told each other this 30 years ago, and the same is true now. I find it deeply affirming and fulfilling to be part of CEW’s “safe harbor” for frank discussion, shared experience and “light bulb” moments. I feel certain each member intuitively knows that their “giving” – both within CEW, to each other, and without CEW, to aspiring women leaders – delivers a valuable personal dividend because each one of us is making a contribution to equality of Australia’s human capital.
  4. Women have the right to be leaders too. Leadership is a growth industry in our 21st century world, for all levels of education from tertiary to one-day seminars and after-work networking events. Yet when CEW was created in the mid-80s, the focus was to increase the share of “management power” to create diversity and gain recognition for the unused management skills of women. Since then our members have not only demonstrated great leadership, but we have made it our mission to be totally committed to the rights of women to be leaders in all walks of Australian life.
  5. There is no one model of leadership that women must follow. The professional workplace has been transformed by technology and the digital age. And so has the image of “women leaders” – think of standouts like CEW member Gail Kelly. A wonderful change for the better since CEW was formed is that women now have many different role models for leadership – they don’t need to feel they must copy the old male “command and control” style that flattens so many hopes and kills creativity. But sadly, there are still many men in powerful positions who hold the deeply-ingrained philosophical view that women are biologically ill-equipped for leadership in business. Thank goodness these dinosaurs are slowly being overtaken by many outstanding male leaders who recognise and reward the enormous contribution women make.

The women who first ignited the flame of Chief Executive Women in the 1980s were an outstanding group of women leaders ready to stand up for women in the workplace. That has not changed. We find ourselves in a very different business landscape, but some things remain the same. CEW still has a powerful role to play as advocates for gender balance. And like the Olympic Torch, many more CEW Presidents will keep this flame blazing.

Chief Executive Women is a unique and outstanding collection of women leaders who will stay focused on ensuring more women leaders. We believe it is the power of giving which ultimately results in the optimum outcome: a win-win for women, for organisations and for Australia.