‘They weren’t gods’: How Wendy McCarthy broke the boardroom glass ceiling


Wendy McCarthy AO was the first keynote speaker at the Forbes Women’s Summit.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 22: Business Executive, Activist & Author Wendy McCarthy AO is interviewed by Forbes Australia Editor-in-Chief Sarah O’Carroll during the Forbes Women: The Power of Now talk at the Forbes Australia Women’s Summit at ICC Sydney on March 22, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. Forbes Australia Women’s Summit, presented by NAB Private Wealth. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for Forbes Australia)

Wendy McCarthy grew up in the rural town of Orange in the 1940s and she never thought she would have a career. A job, perhaps, but not an actual career.  

“A girl might have a ‘jobette’ that was nothing serious, but not an actual career,” she said at the opening session of the Forbes Women’s Summit at the ICC in Sydney today. 

When McCarthy won a four-year scholarship to study teaching at university, she began to realise that she could dream bigger.  

She loved teaching and assumed that she would spend the rest of her life in a classroom, but through force of circumstance, she became involved in public campaigns to advance women’s rights.  

As the head of the Family Planning Association in the 1970s, she fought for women’s reproductive rights, including contraception and abortion, and greater access to sexual health information. She also successfully campaigned for men to be present during the birth of their children in hospitals.  

“In fact, for every significant reform of policy affecting Australian women over the past 50 years, you will probably find Wendy McCarthy among the advocates and agitators,” said Forbes Editor-in-Chief Sarah O’Carroll as she introduced McCarthy onstage. 

“You cannot lead a full life as a woman without control of your own body… If we look at what’s happening in the US right now it’s beyond macabre.”

As a young woman, McCarthy had realised that she had a choice in life: to either mould her behaviour to suit society, or to change the system itself. Needless to say, she took the latter path. 

“I didn’t find there were gods sitting at the board table. Just ordinary people doing their best.”

Wendy McCarthy AO

“When someone tells you that something cannot be done, just ask them why. Almost anything can be done if there’s a will to do it,” she says.  

Along with being the deputy chair of the ABC for eight years, McCarthy has sat on more than 30 boards, including at the world’s most experienced and successful litigation funder, IMF Bentham, the Australian Heritage Commission, Symphony Australia and Star City casino. She has also been the CEO of the National Trust and Chancellor of the University of Canberra.   

“I didn’t find there were gods sitting at the board table. Just ordinary people doing their best,” she explained.

Business Executive, Activist & Author Wendy McCarthy AO . Image: Getty

Now 81, McCarthy has mentored hundreds of women over the decades.

In her 2022 memoir, Don’t Be Too Polite, Girls, McCarthy describes some of the public backlash she faced as a woman at the helm of high-profile organisations. 

When she and a group of women took out a full-page newspaper advertisement acknowledging that they had an abortion and calling for it be legalised, she attracted the attention of local authorities. 

“All of us who took part in that campaign got an ASIO file on themselves, which was fun,” she joked onstage. 

While some long-held rights and freedoms may almost be taken for granted in Australia nowadays, McCarthy gravely noted that women in the United States are facing an erosion of basic reproductive rights, with abortion banned in several states. 

When asked to explain her approach to exercising power and influence, McCarthy said that power comes from self-confidence and knowledge.  

“During my career, I’ve had to exercise power in some pretty tricky circumstances. There’s only one thing that I can fall back on and it is keeping my head and heart connected. It has to feel right, and it has to seem right. If those two things come together, I can accept the responsibility that comes with deciding.”  

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