Shemara Wikramanayake: What you need to know about our latest major female CEO appointment

What you need to know about Australia’s latest major female CEO appointment: Shemara Wikramanayake

Fortune Most Powerful
Shemara Wikramanayake’s appointment as the new CEO of the country’s biggest investment bank, Macquarie Group, is significant for women in leadership.

For the first time in Australia’s corporate history, Wikramanayake will head up the company known as the ‘millionaires factory’ from November. Her appointment was universally well received, and there was no talk of gender having anything to do with it.

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

For the past five years, Wikramanayake 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.

Speaking ahead of the company’s Annual General Meeting last week, Wikramanayake acknowledged the shortage of women in finance, let alone in leadership, and said it’s something she is focused on changing.

“The first thing is to persuade girls what a cool career this is and that there’s nothing that makes it more suited to a male to do than a female and they shouldn’t miss out,” she said.

“That to me is the biggest thing and that means going into schools and community attitudes generally.

“Then once they actually are in the careers trying to empower them to succeed and particularly balance their family life to the extent they want and then to really help and develop them in going up to the next level.”

Her succession into the CEO role has been rumoured for years and tightly managed, with most media struggling to get an interview with the highly respected banker.

Wikramanayake isn’t big on media interviews. She’s not a self-promoter, and appears to have complete control of her public image. It’s fair to say she prefers to let the numbers do the talking.

Wikramanayake’s appointment comes as the focus on gender equality is high at a corporate level and at a social level. Her presence at the top will help women to visualise what their future could look like in a male dominated business world.

According to Agenda Agency director Heidi Sundin, Wikramanayake’s appointment could mark a shift for Macquarie.

“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,” she says.

Catherine Robson, chief executive of Affinity Private and a former Macquarie Group employee, says Wikramanayake’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.”

Wikramanayake attended Sydney’s prestigious Ascham girl’s school, and 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 year off work to have a sabbatical and see if she could use her talents in another way by mostly helping people.

She 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 41.9% of employees awarded promotions were women and 58.1% were men. Meanwhile, 32% of all manager roles are held by women, with senior manager and other executive groups being each held by less than 25% women.

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