Our history

Former CEW Presidents (from left): Christine Christian AO, Jillian Broadbent AO, Imelda Roche AO, Ita Buttrose AC OBE, Barbara Cail AO and Wendy McCarthy AO. Photograph by James Croucher/The Australian

Chief Executive Women had its foundations in 1985 as a branch of the Paris-based organisation, Women Chiefs of Enterprise.

A mutual passion to get a fairer deal for women leaders underpinned the formation of the group. CEW also provided a haven or respite for women seeking to share their experiences as pioneers in the boardrooms and C-suites of Australia.

Barbara Cail AO, the founding President of CEW, says: ‘We grew from the delight of having a peer group.’

It began with the international Women Chiefs of Enterprise approaching Barbara Cail AO, then the publisher of Portfolio magazine, to set up a NSW Branch. ‘I used a very idiosyncratic process. I selected a group of 18 women, organised a dinner and proposed we set up a women’s group.

A mutual passion to get a fairer deal for women leaders underpinned the formation of the group.
As well as the objectives of the Paris organisation, which was mainly a supportive international business network of women entrepreneurs, I suggested we create awareness of women’s business capabilities, which up until that point largely remained under the radar. I suggested lunches with male captains of industry and that we also provide pathways for young women by funding leadership scholarships.

‘It was important that the organisation would also cosset our own needs as women leaders, for fraternity,’ says Barbara Cail AO.

As Bonnie Boezeman AO, a founding member of CEW, describes it: ‘The women who started the organisation were pioneers. They had to work hard to develop something, to help Australia accept the fact that women can run a company, go away and have a family, come back and continue to run a business or become a professional board director.’

Barbara Cail AO recalls: “By 1991, our group had become a rich environment of learning and energy. The desire for expansion to drive an agenda for women leaders was in abundance. CEW was and still is an exclusive organisation by choice, whose criteria is to ensure that members are prepared to contribute to the overall advancement of women leaders.”

During its first decade of operation, one of the first CEW initiatives was to provide an annual scholarship to aspiring women leaders. Many of these scholarships were focused on equipping women with one of the most valued qualification in the business world, an MBA.

Wendy McCarthy AO, another founding member, describes the original annual scholarship as ‘an important way for letting some women’s dreams come true about being something that they dreamt about but didn’t think they could ever be’.

‘CEW’s scholarship has been a very unifying act for the whole group. There is now a good alumni group of the women who are connected through the opportunities that the CEW gave them and I hope the cascading effect of that is that in their lives they’ll reach out for other women and help them,’ says Wendy McCarthy AO.

During the 1980s and 1990s CEW held a series of boardroom lunches which hosted captains of industry such a Bob Joss as guest speakers. These events were instrumental in CEW gaining prominence as a group of powerful women leaders.

‘Members of CEW are regarded as serious contenders in the business community. So when people are looking for CEOs or board members, they will talk to members of CEW. They look to CEW as a source to recruit for top jobs,’ says founding member Carla Zampatti AC.

As the number of women in leadership positions grew, so too did the influence of CEW. In the mid-1990s CEW made a submission to the Karpin Inquiry (Industry Taskforce on Leadership and Management Skills, Enterprising Nation: Renewing Australia’s Managers to Meet the Challenge of the Asia-Pacific Century, Canberra: AGPS, 1995) on women and diversity in management and leadership in the 21st century.

Member Narelle Kennedy AM recalls that: ‘This work was reflected in subsequent government policy statements, and taken up in teaching materials in university business schools.

Later, CEW used the skills of its members to increase resources. It broadened the breadth and depth of its activities to include the Talent Development Program and the CEO Kit.

‘We’re committed to a purpose and a contribution, as women both in a representation sense and in using our talents. So having that element in common, helps the challenge of staying in the workforce when there are a lot forces out there pulling you away… It’s the greatest contribution to its members… But I think with the mentoring program and the metrics taskforce [later evolved into the CEO Kit] we will make a contribution that is a bit more enduring than just the retention of the members in the workforce and their continuation of contributing their talent,’ says former President Jillian Broadbent AO.

In 2020, membership of CEW stands at over 650. At the same time as building the CEW Scholarships Program, the organisation is becoming more externally focused, to reflect the fact that advocacy for gender balance and greater participation of women at all levels is still much needed in Australia today.