Educator, activist and founder of McCarthy Mentoring, Wendy McCarthy, was the first in her family to go to university and was raised to be polite rather than bold.

Shivani Gopal is the CEO and Founder of Elladex. She’s a business thought leader, entrepreneur and finance expert who seeks to create a more equal world.

They both shared their experiences with Catherine Fox AM, journalist and author, at a recent Women in Focus event. McCarthy and Gopal have both made it their mission to create change, to support women to make their own change and in particular, to make workplaces environments that value women, their diversity of thought and experience, and their leadership. 

McCarthy tells Fox it wasn’t only courage that led to her lifetime of achievements.

“I wanted to change something,” she says. “And when I wanted to change something, it felt very personal. I turned my personal motivation into a political action. And that's been really the story of my life.”

She became involved in politics when she wanted her husband to be at the birth of their child but at that time, husbands were banned from delivery suites. McCarthy and her obstetrician rallied support from others who sought to overturn the rule and they won.

McCarthy says this experience taught her that once you have the first result, you’re on the way to creating change.

Questioning the status quo

McCarthy says education is fundamental to enabling women to have choice, build courage and achieve change in their lives and the lives of others.

Gopal echoes that sentiment. Since childhood, she says, she hasn’t understood why a boy was permitted or encouraged to do something, but a girl was not. She says she hasn’t stopped questioning that tradition, and credits it with motivating her lifelong relationship with curiosity.

To be successful, she says women “must have a relationship with lifelong learning. You’ve got to keep learning holistically, and you’ve got to have a strong network of mentors.” McCarthy is testament to that, having launched McCarthy Mentoring, which is now run by her daughter, Sophie.

Gopal believes that education and mentoring help a person develop a strong sense of self-awareness, including their strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge gives a person the confidence to acknowledge the reality of the world in which they operate and have the understanding and courage necessary to challenge it.

McCarthy says that sometimes women need to take a leap of faith. “When you’re invited to do something, make an assumption that person thinks you can. Sometimes you have the courage to listen to the people who trust you, to say yes and work out how to do it later. You don’t have to have been to Harvard to be company-ready.”

McCarthy recalls the time she was asked to join her first board – by the Minister of Education for the Higher Education Board of NSW. She felt so underqualified she nearly refused. “I was the only woman on the Board … I eventually became University Chancellor!”

Years later, when she was asked to join the Board of the ABC, she didn’t hesitate.

The push for gender equality far from over

Although McCarthy’s generation fought for and achieved change for women, she says the statistics and reality experienced by women – young workers especially – in the workplace today shows the fight is far from over.

Gopal agrees. “For young women, I think it is the case that our struggles are more in the shadows than the battles fought by previous generations. We need to call those struggles out.

“We have young women coming into the workforce, boisterous and full of optimism – as they should be – but they hit a glass ceiling later on and just think, ‘this doesn’t make any sense, I’m capable and qualified and experienced, why am I not getting that role?’

“But of course, we know why. They're not given the same level of credibility because there is a level of bias because of their age, and a bias because of their womanhood. It’s just that no one says that stuff out loud anymore, and so for young women there’s a silent sense of overwhelm.”

Women need to be seen and heard

Gopal, who hosts the CommBank Women in Focus podcast Leading Women, urges women to talk more about their experiences at work.

“We’re actually not bad at gender diversity in Australia, we’re bad at including them,” she says, citing research in a soon to be published report, following their landmark national research on the impact of current diversity, equity and inclusion in the private business sector. “We need to not just enable young women – they’re coming into business and that’s great – we need to make sure they are included. They need to be seen and heard.”

Gopal recalls a time with Fox when she challenged a senior man live on stage after he praised the women at his organisation for being ‘quiet achievers’ and ‘just absorbing’ sexism or discrimination. “I tried to do it in a way that was respectful, but still calling out that he’s losing tons of talented, incredible women because of that blind spot he had. And when we got off stage he privately pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, thanks’. Which means I was able to deliver that message in a way that was able to be received.”

Gopal doesn’t believe that women have to change themselves in order to make change happen.

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Our experts

Wendy McCarthy AO is a manager and company director who began her career as a secondary school teacher. She moved out of the classroom into public life in 1968 and since then has worked for change across the public, private and community sectors, in education, family planning, human rights, public health, overseas aid and development, conservation, heritage, media and the Arts. She was a founding member of Women’s Electoral Lobby. She has held many significant leadership roles in key national and international bodies including Deputy Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Chair of Plan Australia, Global Deputy Chair for Plan International, Chair of headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, and Chair of Circus Oz. Wendy has established several businesses, including the national consulting practice McCarthy Mentoring which specialises in providing mentors to major corporations, the public sector and not for profit organisations.

Shivani Gopal is a feminist, entrepreneur, and finance expert on a mission to create a more equal world. She is the CEO and Founder of Elladex and Co-Founder of Upstreet. Shivani won the 2022 NSW Excellence in Women’s Leadership Award and the Top 50 Small Business Leaders award. She is recognised as a leading feminist and business thought leader, helping women navigate through their careers, businesses and financial success. As a dedicated advocate for gender equality and for closing the wealth gap for everyday Australians, Shivani launched “Equality 2050” - a campaign to achieve gender equality within our lifetime - along with co-founding Upstreet, which enables Australia’s first share-reward platform to increase wealth via everyday spending. She has an MBA from the University of Sydney and a Masters Degree in Commerce (Financial Planning) from the University of Western Sydney.

Catherine Fox AM is a leading commentator on women and the workforce, an award-winning journalist, author and presenter. During a long career with the Financial Review, she edited several sections of the newspaper, and wrote the Corporate Woman column; and she has published five books, including "Stop Fixing Women” which along with her journalism was awarded the 2017 Walkley Award for Women’s Leadership in Media. Catherine helped establish the annual Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Awards in 2012 and was named a Woman of Influence in 2018. She is a gender equality advisor to the Australian Defence Force, sits on the Australians Investing in Women board, and is co-founder of the Sydney Women’s Giving Circle.

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  • This article represents opinions and views of the interviewees personal experiences only.  It does not have regard to the situation or needs of any reader and must not be relied upon as advice. It is not intended to imply any recommendation or opinion about a financial product. Before acting on this information, consider its appropriateness to your circumstances. Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124.