The witch hunt against women in corporate Australia must be stopped

Why is it that women struggle to get more than 5 per cent of chairman positions at major Australian companies, but are asked to consume a much higher proportion of the s— sandwiches handed out for corporate governance missteps?

I pondered that during the two hours I spent at Ernst & Young on Tuesday representing my firm on a committee asking what we could do to improve female participation in my industry. I concluded that all the worthy committees in the world wouldn’t solve the problem if some men didn’t step up and call time on the witch-hunt against women in corporate Australia.

Catherine Brenner was forced out as AMP chair.
Catherine Brenner was forced out as AMP chair. Credit:Janie Barrett

The ‘burn her at the stake’ society is an inclusive one; both men and women can join the lynch mob. Those who participate fail to see the damage their actions has caused.

Australia is losing a huge amount of human talent from the corporate sphere at a time when we need that talent urgently. We lag in gender inclusion and our productivity is in the toilet. That this is a coincidence seems unlikely.


So, don’t care about diversity because it’s fashionable. Don’t care about it because it’s a religion. Care about women being involved in the investments you make because they will make you more money. More female participation at the highest levels of corporate Australia will make for a better capitalism.

The dirty secret of the old boys’ club that rules corporate Australia is that we actually do a very poor job of making our companies globally competitive. What we are great at is hearing the distant rumble of the corporate governance goon squad and running for cover before they get to us.

Former Blue Sky partner Elaine Stead
Former Blue Sky partner Elaine Stead Credit:Louise Kennerley

I know nothing about former AMP chair Catherine Brenner as a businesswoman even though I have met her several times in a social setting. What I know for an absolute certainty is that she got handed the tiller of a ship that was traveling at 15 knots straight for an iceberg less than a boat length from it by those who went before her. Brenner’s ability to turn the ship and avoid the destruction was precisely zero.

I have spent less time with former Blue Sky venture capitalist Elaine Stead socially than Catherine Brenner, but far more time with her in a business context. The one investment we made together went to hell, through no fault of Elaine’s. Yet throughout that sorry tale she was nothing but a star.

I’m planning to hire Elaine to help me with a series of investments where I’m convinced she will do as good a job as a top decile man. I do this not for fashion but because I’m greedy. She is going to make me a ton of money. That she has got so much flack for the demise of Blue Sky relative to the men who actually ran the organisation seems unbelievable to me.

The dirty secret of the old boys’ club that rules corporate Australia is that we do a poor job of making our companies globally competitive

Mark Carnegie

Now you can say that what was commented on were governance concerns and other things, but for the average person they just remember the woman and the wreckage because of the job the Australian corporate milieu does in these circumstances. We have to bring this to an end.

Australia gets far more bang for its buck when it hires a woman instead of a man. And we need more women to want to work at the most senior levels of business.

That men laugh at the pub or the club when a woman gets taken out by the Lord of the Flies mob speaks to why we are underperforming on yardsticks of global corporate performance.

Elaine didn’t trouser $30 million and retire, Catherine didn’t destroy one of the most storied institutions of Australia’s corporate history. Men did both. They’ll probably be sitting on the beach sipping mango daiquiris this Christmas, and you don’t even remember their names.

I thought I’d write this down as a memo to myself and to the other men who care. We are cowards when we don’t stand up and speak the truth about this. We need more courage and the lynch mob targeting women at the highest levels of business in this country needs to be stopped.

Mark Carnegie is a venture capitalist and former investment banker. 

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