Interview with Heather McIlwain, CEO of Chief Executive Women

Chief Executive Women (CEW) is the pre-eminent organisation representing Australia’s most senior women leaders from the corporate, public service, academic and not-for-profit sectors. Tim Henry sat down with CEO Heather McIlwain to find out more about this influential powerhouse and its work.


Heather, for those of who not heard of CEW before, please tell us about the organisation.

Chief Executive Women (CEW) was founded in 1985 by a group of pioneering women leaders including Ita Buttrose, Imelda Roche and Barbara Cail. We now represent more than 500 of Australia’s most distinguished women. Some things never change though, and CEW members have always shared the vision that they are Women Leaders Enabling Women Leaders.

CEW works hard to educate and influence all levels of Australian business and government on the importance of gender balance. We do this through advocacy, targeted programs and scholarships. CEW’s programs are informed by research and led by CEW members and made possible by the generous supported of our sponsors and partners.

What program are you most proud of?

CEW has developed a reputation for informed commentary and advocacy on gender equality particularly women in leadership positions. We are fortunate to have partnered with the leading management consulting firms over the past 8 years (Bain and Company, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group) to undertake research in to the barriers to progression in the workplace. Our members and sponsors use the findings of this research to inform their organisation’s workplace policies, recruitment and retention programs and gender balance targets.

Since 1992 CEW has provided scholarships to senior women keen to advance their careers to undertake professional development at leading international business schools. About 150 senior women have been CEW Scholars and the program is something we’re all very proud of.

Our President Kathryn Fagg recently bumped into a former scholar who was keen to talk about how her career has flourished since studying through a CEW scholarship. We have some really notable scholars who are now members of CEW – for example Christine Holgate, and you’ll be pleased to know that several senior HR leaders have been awarded scholarships in recent years to MIT.

In 2005 as a pilot with 16 women from 4 organisations, CEW established the Leaders Program. Since then more than 1200 women from 82 organisations have participated in Australia and Singapore. One of the things that the women who take part in this program say is they love the opportunity to network with and learn from other women from a wide range of industries and sectors.

CEW President Kathryn Fagg with Lucy Turnbull at CEW’s 2017 annual dinner

How can our HR Clients get involved?

HR professionals are in a great position to identify where the leadership team of their organisation is at and what might help. Often a CEO Conversation – which is a structured conversation about leadership with CEW members based on the organisation’s workforce data and aspirations for gender balance – really helps break the inertia. CEW also works with those that report to the Executive team to CEO–3 to work on their leadership shadow, which is a great way to accelerate progress towards gender balance goals, and improve retention rates of key female talent.

Talent teams also are great at picking women in the business who would benefit from participating in our Leaders Program. CEW’s development program lead and delivered by CEW members.

HR professionals might also benefit from research and resources on our website – CEO’s Diversity kit and our most recent insights, including 2017 Senior Executive Census and Merit Trap.

CEW (our members) work closely with CEOs and Chairmen,and welcome the opportunity to work closely with HC/HR leaders.

Can you give us an example of a ‘CEO Conversation’ having a real impact on the organisation? 

CEW has conducted ‘CEO conversations’ with Westpac, DFAT, Goldman Sachs, IBM, King & Wood Mallesons, KPMG and Victoria Police. While the CEO conversations are by their nature Chatham House, what I can say is that our members return from those meetings and say things like ‘you see the lightbulbs go off around the room”.

We see over and over that leadership is key to achieving better outcomes on gender parity.

It’s not one size fits all. It’s hard. Even organisations that are doing well have been working hard for a very long time. It takes commitment and strong leadership.

The business landscape has obviously changed enormously since CEW’s inception in 1985. When it comes to women in leadership roles, how do you think Australia is faring compared with other countries?

Sure the business landscape has changed since 1985 – we are not wearing padded shoulders any more! There are more women in the workforce and in leadership roles.

OECD said last year that Australia is middle of the pack. We do really well on education outcomes for women, but in terms of pay gap, women in parliament and workforce participation, we’re a long way from leading the world.

Do you have any advice for our Clients who would like to advance gender equality in their own workplace?

Leadership is key – no sustained progress is made without it.  Increasing we are more aware that leadership needs to exist at not just the Executive Team and Board but particularly at the next two levels underneath (CEO-2 and CEO-3).  Those senior leaders can require significant support to bring the gender goals of the Executive Team to life.

That’s why our Leadership Shadow facilitated conversation is so in demand. Gender is a political conversation, as well as an economic one, and leaders need more help (not less) delivering on those outcomes.


More information on CEW

About Heather McIlwain


Heather is the CEO of Chief Executive Women, Australia’s pre-eminent organisation representing more than 420 of Australia’s most senior women from the corporate, public, academic and not-for-profit sectors. Its mission is “women leaders enabling women leaders”. Through advocacy, targeted programs and scholarships, CEW’s members work to remove the barriers to women’s progression and ensure equal opportunity for prosperity. Heather leads CEW’s national executive team in the development and execution of strategy and program implementation.

Prior to joining CEW, Heather held senior HR roles at leading professional services firms KPMG and Allens Arthur Robinson. Heather is a strong advocate for organisational gender equity and her invaluable experience in strategic design, consulting, and gender championing has been acquired over the past 10 years.

Heather commenced her professional career as a practising lawyer for Allens Arthur Robinson and Linklaters in Australia and the UK working across financial services, media, intellectual property and information technology sectors.

Heather holds a Bachelor of Arts (History) & Bachelor of Laws from the University of Newcastle.