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“Why let boys have all this fun?” is exactly what Shemara Wikramanayke, Macquarie Group CEO dropped as the only Asian woman on the ASX300.

Although female-founded companies in 2020 generated more revenue than male-founded companies, men dominate the business world, with 95% of ASX300 companies having a male CEO. This is because women in the business world often face many gender-based issues, such as the glass cliff, which hinder their ability to rise to CEO positions.

What contributes to the success of these women and what would happen to the male-dominated ASX300 companies today if they gave their most promising females the opportunity to take the reins of the company and become the CEO?

Would women fail? Or, would they show that they are just as capable as a man of holding a CEO position?

In Australia, the number of women aged 25-29 who have achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher is 12.2 percentage points higher than the number of men the same age achieving the same thing.

Women also represented 58.7% of domestic students enrolled in universities or other institutions.

However, when it comes to the corporate world, this data isn’t reflected, and currently, only 5% of ASX300 companies have a female CEO. To translate this, Australian corporations have a lot of catching up to do to reach an additional 50% representation on the ASX to reflect the proportional presence of women studying at university.

Of course, Shemara Wikramanayake is one of these women, and she is currently the top-paid CEO in Australia.

So why isn’t this higher proportion of women with qualifications reflected in a higher proportion of women in corporate leadership roles?

Women in the corporate workforce tend to face issues associated with the glass ceiling, an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from achieving top leadership roles, and even once they have conquered the glass ceiling, many then come up against the glass cliff.

The glass cliff refers to the phenomenon of women being promoted into roles, such as CEO, when the company is struggling or performing poorly.

For many companies, they place women in these roles when the company is doing poorly so if it ultimately fails, the responsibility falls on them and what the company regards as more valued male CEOs are protected.

Even though women may be aware that they are being presented with a glass cliff situation, the opportunity is often too good to turn down.

Research done by the Korn Ferry Institute revealed that out of the 21 female CEOs they interviewed, nine of them had been presented with a glass cliff opportunity.

Despite facing issues such as the glass ceiling and the glass cliff, women also struggle to move up the ranks of a male-dominated business because they aren’t accepted into the “good-old-boys club”, and therefore, their networking with these powerful men is limited.

Gender discrimination in the workplace means that women often aren’t taken as seriously in their roles, and they are given fewer opportunities to move up the ranks of a company.


For Whitney Wolfe Herd, she was excited to start at Tinder as a co-founder and vice president of marketing in 2012.

However, after being stripped of her co-founder role, because her male counterparts said that being a woman meant the company was taken less seriously and experiencing repeated acts of sexism and discrimination, she decided to leave.

We can see now that this decision was the best that she could make.

Whitney went on to start Bumble, what she calls a dating app by women, for women. She is now the youngest self-made female billionaire and in 2021 became the youngest woman to ever take a company public.

Women also face this discrimination when it comes to accessing funding for startups.

Startups fully founded by women in Australia received just 5.3% of venture capital funding, compared with the 27% received by startups co-founded by women.

Globally, female entrepreneurs receive only 3% of total revenue capital dollars in the early stages of their companies.

So what is it about male-founded companies that allows them to receive so much funding in comparison to female-founded ones?

It is clear that early support from a male investor is greatly important in accessing funding, as we can see in Whitney’s story where she had the support and investment of Andrey Andreev from the get-go.


Andrey wasn’t just an investor for Whitney, he was also an important mentor for her, and they worked together in creating and refining Bumble as we know it today.

Whitney says “it’s important to recognise how instrumental true friendship and good mentors are in helping us to keep going.”

This mentorship is something that almost all CEO’s, male or female, draw upon and value and it is often a key aspect of success in the business world.

Mentors are powerful influences that not only connect you with their contacts, but also allow you to see your strengths more clearly, and help in designing a successful business.

Korn Ferry Institute found that along their CEO journey, the majority of women noted that someone along the way “believed in me more than I believed in myself”, and had male and female mentors supporting them and helping them rise through a company.


Melanie Perkins, co-founder of Canva had a similar mentorship experience when meeting Bill Tai and then Lars Rasmussen when first developing the idea of Canva.

She met Bill at a conference in Perth and after striking up a conversation and getting his number, she was soon meeting with him in San Francisco and presenting him with her business plan.

Although mentors can be seen as these formal relationships, they are often quite similar to friendships, and Melanie actually remained close to Bill by taking up kite-surfing and going to his kite-surfing event called My Tai, where she was then able to make other connections.

Lars Rasmussen was also a key mentor for her and meeting him “radically changed my [Melanie’s] perspective and the scale of my vision for Canva.”

However, she points out that Mentors aren’t always in-person connections, you can also be ‘mentored’ by reading online resources, like blog posts, or interviews of business people that inspire you.

Mentorship doesn’t just appear, however, with entrepreneurship, women and men who work their way up in pre-existing businesses, also benefit greatly from mentorship and highly value it.


Macquarie Group’s CEO, Shemara Wikramanayake, is the highest-paid CEO in Australia and believes mentorship, grouped with resilience and confidence are key to business success.

Shemara migrated to Australia at age 13 from London, and she says a lot of her confidence and resilience came from living in different countries and experiencing financial hardship during her childhood.

She started at Macquarie Bank in 1987 and was the head of Macquarie Asset Management from 2008-2018, before becoming CEO in 2018.

She draws on the value of mentors by saying that, “some of the richest decision making can be informed by the most unexpected perspectives and advice that challenges your preconceived views.”

It’s not always formal, but a lot of the time mentors appear at key inflexion points to guide your direction, broaden networks and challenge your perspective.

Although the struggle for C-suite roles is universal for all women, it is particularly heightened for women of colour in Australia and around the world.

Despite data from Bloomberg showing that 71% of female entrepreneurs amongst the world’s richest 500 are from Asia, only two Asian women in Australia made it onto the list of Australia’s top 100 entrepreneurs, Melanie Perkins and Jane Lu.

Melanie Perkins is the only Asian-Australian female who has started a unicorn brand, but she shouldn’t be the only one.

Although the number of women of colour rising up into executive and board roles is increasing, only 4.6% of the 2490 people holding senior positions in the ASX200 companies have a non-European background, and this is across both women and men.

“Being a young woman in business can be challenging, but for me, it became a source of strength.” - Lucy Liu, Airwallex.

Although women continue to face struggles when getting into business leadership, it’s not all doom and gloom.

The rate of females on ASX200 boards continues to increase, and from 2008 to 2021, female representation on these boards increased from 8.3 to 33.6 per cent. Making Australia one of only four countries to have female representation above 30% on top company boards.

Additionally, studies by the Kauffman Foundation and others found that female-founded companies generated more revenue and in 2020, they delivered more than twice the return per dollar invested as their male-owned counterparts.

It has also been found that companies with a woman as their CEO increased their market value by at least 5%.

This alone could answer our hypothetical of what would happen if all the companies on the ASX300 had female CEOs.

Women are continuing to beat these gender-based challenges, and prove that for them, being a woman is their strength.

Although mentorships often occur when first entering the business world, they are continuous connections, and for many women, they continue to mentor and be mentored by their team.

They take what they’ve learnt along the way and use this to inform and inspire other aspiring businesswomen.

An example of this is Showpo’s CEO, Jane Lu’s Facebook group “Like Minded Bitches Drinking Wine”, which has over 160,000+ members and is a network where women can learn from, support and inspire each other in their endeavours and aspirations of entrepreneurship.

As the world slowly sees the capabilities of women in business leadership, we can only hope that the rate of women in top company board positions continues to increase.


Georgia Robinson is currently studying Journalism and International Studies (Majoring in Spanish) at the University of Technology Sydney. She is an aspiring journalist with a keen interest in global affairs by advocating multicultural Australian perspectives on a global scale. Georgia is an intrepid traveller with a curious mind and is inspired by SBS reportings.

Instagram: @georgiarobinson13


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