Leadership

When a woman’s ambition appears to become the story

Angela Priestley /

AMP royal commission

Former AMP chief executive Craig Meller and chair Catherine Brenner. Source: AMP

I’m as disgusted as the next person about the details coming out of the banking royal commission — particularly those which implicate AMP. I could see few other options other than for AMP chair Catherine Brenner to ‘step down’.

Brenner’s now the biggest scalp to go since the start of the commission, following on from now former AMP chief executive, Craig Meller.

Tanya Plibersek described Brenner’s resignation as “something that needed to happen”, while Treasurer Scott Morrison said that few Australians would be shedding a tear following her departure.

Yes, Brenner had to go.

However, I have been wondering about some of the reporting on Brenner and whether it’s symptomatic of a larger problem regarding how we view women’s ambition.

On Tuesday, the Australian Financial Review featured a page one story headlined: “Catherine Brenner’s formula for climbing the corporate ladder.”

It details how Brenner knew she would need to expand her range of contacts in order to “smooth her pathway to prestigious board seats”. An “amused onlooker” is quoted as saying that Brenner, “went after David Gonski like there was no tomorrow”. Another source shares astonishment that Brenner had earned the respect of Gonski at all.

The Brenner “formula for success” piece also notes a 2003 Vogue beauty story which featured Brenner discussing her beauty regime, her beauty role models and the $600 a month she spend on beauty accessories.

Meanwhile, it’s also noted that Brenner (supposedly) paid a deep personal cost during her rise to the top, and was rarely able to see her daughters at one point because she was out every night of the week.

These details are irrelevant. They have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Two weeks ago a Fairfax Media column asked if Brenner’s performance “raises the question of whether some of these women being promoted to board seats — through the conventional maze of corporate networks — are any better than the men they are replacing”.

As if Brenner represents all female board directors appointed through networks.

Meanwhile on Sky News, one commentator said that Brenner was doing her job at AMP, “by just being female”.

The above has attracted the usual comments on social media regarding “experimenting” with women in leadership. “Didn’t we learn from the Gillard experiment?!” and, “This is what happens when you fail to appoint on merit!”

Brenner does not represent all women in leadership. Just like the many, many men before her who have stuffed up while on the job don’t represent all men in leadership.

Brenner’s ambition for board positions is also no different from plenty of men before her — nor is her apparent penchant for networking and connecting with powerful people. That’s how it’s done, and perhaps that’s what really needs to change here.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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