Shemara Wikramanayake

What Shemara Wikramanayake means for women in business

Shemara Wikramanayake's appointment as the new CEO of Macquarie is inspiring and significant for women in business.

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Shemara Wikramanayake appointment as the new CEO of the country’s biggest investment bank Macquarie Group will redefine the way women see themselves as leaders.

For the first time in Australia’s corporate history, the recent announcement that Shemara will head up the company known as the millionaires factory from November, was universally well received but it was also without any doubt being cast that she got the role because of gender.

For the past five years, Shemara has been at the top of her game and last year collected a salary of about $17 million – making her one of the country’s highest paid women and finance executives.

Her appointment as Macquarie’s next CEO has been the talk of town for years and has been well managed with most media struggling to get an interview with the highly respected banker.

Shemara isn’t big on media interviews, she’s not a self-promoter, and rather she has taken control of her public image, and prefers to let the numbers do the talking.

Not since Gail Kelly headed up Westpac have we had a female CEO at the top of the game in finance and even now, the landscape and what Shemara brings to the table is different.

Shemara’s appointment comes as the focus on gender equality is high at a corporate level and at a social level; her presence helps women to visualize what their future could look like in a male dominated business world.

Investment banks have traditionally had a perceived reputation for a certain type of sexist / misogynistic culture – whether real or not – perception can be reality.

This is a good opportunity for Macquarie Bank to assess its own culture, particularly in light of the broader issues in the financial section highlighted from the Banking Royal Commission.

To some extent it also helps to normalize leadership for women.

We all remember when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, and her gender was the basis for constant headlines, regardless of what she was talking about.

The often-brutal treatment of women in leadership as amplified through the media has made many aspiring career women rethink whether the path for power is worth the pain.

Catherine Robson, chief executive of Affinity Private, used to work at Macquarie Group many years ago, and she says Shemera’s appointment is personally inspiring.

“It is fantastic to see a woman in that job. But ever better for me has been the reaction. There hasn’t been any skepticism about whether she is capable or whether she got the job because she was a woman.

“From all of the people I know there is universal respect that she is the best person for the job. That sort of reaction is very positive for women seeking leadership.”

What we know about Shemara is that her educational background is reasonably relatable.

Yes she attended Sydney’s prestigious Ascham girl’s school, but her university studies are not reflective of a mathematical genius – even though she might well be. She studied commerce and law at the University of New South Wales.

Like many women, her career pathway hasn’t been entirely linear.

She has two teenage children and about ten years ago took a whole year off work to have a sabbatical and see if she could use her talents in another way by mostly helping people.

She displays a common sense approach when it comes to money, and she’s not flashy and has never sold her own Macquarie shares since joining the company in 1987.

Macquarie Group has been making some inroads in gender equality with their most recent WGEA report showing that the workforce was 41.9 per cent of employees awarded promotions were women and 58.1 per cent were men, and 32 per cent of all manager roles are held by women, with senior manager and other executive groups being each held by less than 25 per cent women.

This article is an edited version of that first published on Women’s Agenda.

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