Wendy McCarthy: Taking 'the long view'

Why we should take ‘the long view’ on gender equality, according to Wendy McCarthy.
Women's Agenda
4 mins

By Olivia Cleal

Wendy McCarthy prides herself on “taking the long view”. In fact, that’s the name of her handle for her X account. 

It was a deliberate choice she made when setting up her account: as an 83-year-old woman whose career spans across several industries and sectors, she takes every bit of progress of diversity and inclusion with a grain of salt.

Because most of the time, she’s seen it happen before.

“The thing that is quite deeply shocking is that nobody knows what happened yesterday,” McCarthy told Women’s Agenda.

“I’ve lived through various revolutions… and people are getting excited about things that happened 40 or 50 years ago.”

These “cyclical” progressions in gender equality she speaks of include advancements for reproductive rights, parental leave, support for early education and, most of all, diversity and inclusion.

“If everyone had stayed on course, we wouldn’t be talking about it again,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy will speak at the Women & Leadership Australia Symposium in Sydney on Friday 14 June on the importance of diversity and inclusion in corporate boards and leadership.

Jobs for women, careers for men

Wendy McCarthy grew up in Orange, a country town in NSW. Receiving the teachers’ college scholarship, she began her extraordinary career as a teacher, where she found men and women were “put in lanes” from early on. 

If women on the teachers’ scholarship got married and left their career early, they were not required to pay the bond of the scholarship back. In other words, it was an incentive for women to get married and have children, and an incentive for men to stay in the job and build their career.

This idea of careers for men and jobs for women was not exclusive to the teaching industry: as a political lobbyist, advocate, businesswoman, and board director, McCarthy found many men never genuinely cared about hearing from women and other underrepresented groups.

“I’ve been a woman in a situation when the men have gone and talked separately – sometimes pretending they’re not – and confirmed a business decision,” McCarthy said.

“You’re not able to access all the conversations that result in proper policy and proper decision making.”

Some reports show we are regressing when it comes to diversity and inclusion. In 2023, the number of women holding board positions in ASX 200-300 listed companies sharply declined by 12 per cent, according to data from the Governance Institute Of Australia and Watermark Search International’s 2024 Board Diversity Index. In fact, 13 of the top ASX 300 boards didn’t have any female directors at all.

Why should companies champion diversity and inclusion?

Some companies don’t understand the importance of diversifying leadership and governance in a company, many resigning to an all-too-common misconception: “That’s not the job of a corporate board”.

“That’s what men have always said: ‘The corporate board does not exist to educate women’,” McCarthy said.

“We have to approach it differently… part of the role of the corporate board is to raise and create wealth. There is no better way to do it than for everybody to share in the pursuit of it, as well as the result.”

There is a “cycle” of progression, regression and then progression again in Australia, and there’s one big thing to blame: the lack of women in leadership and governance. Women bring lived experience to the table, and not including their voices can perpetuate this cycle.

“The elephant in the room is that women are trying to do it for themselves, but unless we have more women right at the top who can pull the levers, it’s very hard to get animated about some of the things that are happening,” McCarthy said.

“When boards are asked to support diversity, they will mostly get a paper written by human resources and they will describe how to set up the policy. But it still doesn’t necessarily come from the top – the director sitting at the head of the table.”

McCarthy believes that diversity and inclusion is good for a company, and the numbers stack up this claim. According to statistics on LinkedIn, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity have a +25 per cent chance of financially outperforming their peers. Diverse teams earn 2.5x higher cash flow per employee, are around 35 per cent more productive and make better decisions 87 per cent of the time.

McCarthy has seen it in action, too. She’s sat on a total of 34 boards, across a range of industries and sectors – from media companies, to mental health organisations and even musical theatre groups.

“As women, we bring lived experience to the table. We insist on it,” she said.

“Conversations that affect the community are best addressed by 100 per cent of the population, not one narrow group.”

Wendy McCarthy will be speaking at the Women & Leadership Australia Symposium on Friday June 14. You can find out more about the event here.

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda as Partner Content