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How far have we come?

The Deal Special Issue: 30 Years of Chief Executive Women.

Thirty years after CEW began, the long-standing members reflect on what’s really changed for women and the advice that actually matters

Story by JENI PORTER

The landscape for a 20-something woman embarking on a career is vastly different from three decades ago when these pioneers came together to form Chief Executive Women, united by a passion to get a fairer deal for women leaders. CEW became a force for change, an advocate for aspiring female leaders and a supportive peer group.

Some of the founding members have changed their minds about some things, especially the 1980s superwoman mantra that women can have it all, but they are united in their advice for the next generation. Be patient, be strategic, be brave and learn from the blokes who never doubt they can tackle something new and risky and know that failing can be a valuable life lesson.

Use your 20s to work out your skills, the best fit culturally, and whether you actually want to aim for the top. By about 33 it should all click in and that’s where the big decisions are made.

Then come the hard, competitive years from 35 to 45 when women are juggling senior roles with motherhood and banging up against entrenched male bias. This is when our panel thinks women need all the help they can get – be it through tax incentives for childcare or a more supportive workplace that acknowledges the demands but does not perceive them as an impediment to success.

While the landscape has changed dramatically since 1985 there’s still a huge imbalance in the C-suite and boardrooms. Some of our panel argue quotas are a no-brainer and need to be big – 50:50 by 2020 – to do away with the excuses and make things happen. Others prefer something less prescriptive – targets for equal numbers of interviews, or peer group pressure.

All are hopeful and excited about the prospects for the next women leaders to whom they’ve passed the baton.

The questions:

Can you tell us about one breakthrough moment in your career?

Do we need quotas for jobs at all levels and for board positions to ensure women get a real chance?

Do children hold women back, or is that a furphy now?

What have you changed your mind about in the debate about women at work?

What’s your advice for 20-something women who are ambitious and want to get to the top?

WENDY McCARTHY

Independent non-executive director

Background

I began my professional life as a secondary-school teacher and taught continuously for six years in Sydney, London and Pittsburgh, USA. The obstacles to remaining a teacher while a new mother – three times in five years – led me to community activism, then management and finally to the boardroom.

Breakthrough

Saying yes to the offer of deputy chair of the ABC in 1983.

Quotas

We need a big objective – 50:50 by 2020 – because we need goals and targets so there are no more excuses. It’s not just about board roles, it’ s also about the landscape of our workplaces and our domestic arrangements.

Children

Having children changes us, as it should. We learn to consider others, think ahead, be flexible and take responsibility for another person’s life. In the corporate environment those changes can hold us back.

Advice

Keep your head and heart connected and make sure you understand what the top is and why you might want to be there. Oh, and try to find a soul mate to share your dreams and passions.

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