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Carol Schwartz is a powerhouse
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Carol Schwartz is a powerhouse
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“Our society does not like to talk about women exercising financial power or being ambitious. We just don’t like it.”
13 December 2018

Carol Schwartz is a powerhouse

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Photography by Sandy Rogulič

Mele-Ane Havea on Carol Schwartz

For decades, Carol Schwartz has been a champion of women’s interests in the corporate world. She’s fought tirelessly to create gender equality wherever she’s worked and has empowered many women to make confident business and investment decisions and blaze their own trails as leaders in their fields. She’s worked in areas ranging from property development to education and the environment, and is currently chair of the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, which she founded to improve the representation of women in leadership roles, and Our Community, which provides tools and advice for people to build stronger communities.

As a leader, Carol is remarkable. As a female leader, she is rare. Female CEOs make up a mere four percent of listed companies in Australia, and out of the 19 cabinet members in the Australian government, only two are women (note at the time of this conversation it was one—a figure Carol refers to). Many of us have grown used to seeing such a huge absence of women in positions of power. It’s been normalised. But from the start of her career, Carol knew it didn’t need to be this way. She’s been determined to ensure that we don’t get complacent about this, and that the status quo is challenged. She calls out inequality when she sees it.

It’s this part of Carol’s work that most inspires me—the firm manner with which she raises her hand when she sees an injustice. I have often found it difficult to stay calm and clear-headed when confronted with prejudice. Whether it’s happening to me or to a friend, I get tongue-tied trying to respond in an effective way. I have often watched Carol in awe, thinking, Where does she find the strength? Where does she find the words?

It’s not like Carol is immune to the struggle—she feels it too, I realise as I sit opposite her at the boardroom table of her office. It wasn’t always easy for her to be in male-dominated settings. But she has worked hard, unbelievably hard, and stayed true to her beliefs. Carol is surprisingly matter-of-fact and practical about her success and her advocacy. And I admire that too. For her, it seems, this is just something that needs to be done. And each day, she does her best to do it.

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

CAROL SCHWARTZ: You have fabulous hair by the way.

MELE-ANE HAVEA: So do you.

I have to say it.

Well it’s funny because I do actually want to talk about hair and the way it relates to how you’ve inspired me.

Oh, thank you!

Yes, when I started my career in corporate law I often found myself in environments where I was the only young coloured woman. And I used to try to fit in: I would straighten my hair, tie it back. When I watch you, in the media, talking with such strength about the issues you are so passionate about, I wonder was there ever a time where you felt that you needed to…

Tie back my hair?

Yeah! Tie back your hair! Change to fit in.

Absolutely. I grew up in the property industry at a time when there were very few women. I used to pull back my hair and make it look very straight because I felt that that presented an image of seriousness, which was what I thought was needed. And

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

as I became more relaxed and more confident in myself and my ability to make a contribution, to have a level of meaningful involvement, I became more relaxed about the way I looked.

Sometimes I still feel self-conscious about having curly hair because it’s not the
corporate look, but I have to remember this is me, this is how I am and you either
like it or you don’t. I’m too old now to have to make those sorts of compromises.

Do you feel that you changed or the environment around you changed? You mentioned confidence growing.

Yeah. That’s interesting. I think that I changed. And I think that as one becomes more confident in one’s ability, one feels more empowered. Particularly women. I don’t believe that women in this country feel empowered—especially financially empowered. So they tend not to make risky investments, for example.

Why is that?

It’s how you’re brought up. I come from an entrepreneurial family. So taking risks around business was something I’ve always been exposed to. And I think that’s really important. If you come from an environment where you’re reliant on others to make a living, entrepreneurship becomes something scary because you’re really taking a risk. When I was 23 my husband and I used our own money, which was not much, to convert an old warehouse into an aerobics and dance studio. That was really exciting. For others who might not have had the same exposure, it could be pretty frightening. Because you do risk a lot. You risk your capital, your reputation, your time. But that’s not something I was frightened to do. And I think that that has really put me in good stead: having courage to make mistakes.

I imagine it takes courage to stand in front of the media like you do too, to be a public voice.

Yeah, it’s scary. I run this database called Women for Media—an incredibly important initiative. What we’ve done is created a database of more than 150 female business leaders who could be facing the media at any time to comment on a particular issue. And unfortunately the business media in this country very rarely calls on women as commentators or thought leaders or opinion setters, so what we do is we ring journalists and say, “We noticed that you had an article which interviewed three leading business people and not one of them was a woman. Well, here is a list of at least six women who would have been fabulous for that article.” It’s a way of making more women role models in business, in the corporate world.

It’s so important because I think what happens when there are no role models is that we internalise these norms.

We “know” that it’s men who are experts.

That’s exactly right. And women are as susceptible to and guilty of unconscious bias as men. Because if we’re not seeing women as CEOs, if we’re not seeing women as chairpeople, if we’re not seeing women on boards or as commentators in our media, we’re not being exposed to women in leadership. And if we’re not seeing that, well, I always say:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

I think the environment you’re raised in is important here. I was brought up in a family where the expectation was girls are as successful as boys. There was never any differentiation. So I never had any other expectation for myself other than I would be successful and ambitious and achieve whatever I was capable of achieving.
If, as a child, you’re constantly being told, “You can’t do this” or “That’s not appropriate for a girl,” then I think you’re really battling as an adult to overcome that hardwiring.

I look at a law firm and think, Why are only 16 percent of partners women? And why is it that the women who are partners tend not to be married, not to have children? I don’t know how this has happened. We have not really progressed all that much in the last 25 years unfortunately. I was just at a lunch with a group of colleagues and we were all sort of lamenting the fact that we have not really made all that much difference for our daughters who are dealing with the same things we were dealing with.

Really? You don’t see a difference?

Only at the margins. Look at our cabinet in Australia: we have 18 men and one woman. This is the year 2014 and our premier decision-making board has 18 men and one woman, and they have an impact on every aspect of our lives: business, social welfare, education. It’s a completely nondiverse group of people standing around a table making decisions for us as a nation. Now is that a step forward to where we were in the 1980s? I don’t think so.

It must be frustrating for you, facing that inequality daily. Where do you draw strength and hope?

Well, I do my bit. And I draw strength from doing my bit. “Women for Media,” for example, is doing enormous things for the empowerment of women. I actually got an email from a journalist one day saying, “You’re really having an impact because in our newsroom meeting this morning our editor walked in and said, “If I see one more fucking email from Carol Schwartz about why there are no women.”


And that’s good! That’s really good. I believe the context of male champions has changed. I’ve just taken on the convenor role for the male champions of change in the property industry. Which is very exciting. And you know, I have rung every man who’s on that initiative and they have been so positive about it. We have a lot of really good men who want to solve this. Because they have daughters. They have sisters. They have wives. They know how smart and what great contributors women are to society. And the fact is, more than 60 percent of graduates now are women. They don’t want to be left behind in the war for talent. They want to recruit the best people possible for their organisations. And they want to know how to retain them once they’ve recruited them.

So out of all the incredible projects that you’re involved in at the moment, what’s the most exciting?

There are a few. Scale Angels is one. It takes women who for whatever reason have been out of the workforce and are not feeling so confident about their investment capabilities and turns them into powerhouses. They learn to make investment decisions. I think it contributes to the re-igniting of their confidence. We were talking with a very senior partner from a professional services firm recently, she earns a lot of money, and she had never, ever signed a cheque for a risky investment. But men do that all the time.

Men take responsibility for the investing, while women tend to be a lot more risk-averse.

They’ll think, Should I be investing this? Or should I just put it in shares, or should I just put it in the bank at four percent? If you could actually make five times your money on that investment, why wouldn’t you try? Trust yourself. You know, have confidence in your ability to do the due diligence, to make the decision about whether that person you’re investing in is the right kind of person.

It’s making the process of investment accessible. It’s demystifying the language.

Right. There’s such a language to investing. And it can be excluding if you don’t speak it, which again contributes to confidence.

One of the other organisations I’m involved with is Creative Partnerships Australia, which is all about encouraging philanthropy for the arts. We’re exploring really innovative ways of encouraging philanthropy into the arts—like crowdfunding, which is such an exciting way of democratising giving, and empowering people of all ages, of all walks of life, to be able to become part of a really exciting event, an exciting project.

The internet itself presents amazing opportunities to connect and disrupt.

Right. We have an appalling wage gap in Australia where women, I think, get 18 percent less than men for doing the same work. When you talk to HR people about that, they’ll have all sorts of excuses as to why that might happen and why it’s too difficult to address. Which is very frustrating because my answer to that is: “Let’s just publish all the salaries and it’ll be easily fixed.” The internet could be incredibly powerful in that regard. But, you know, there’s this real mindset that there needs to be privacy around remuneration.

I remember speaking to a law firm once about this and it became a very emotional conversation where the women in the organisation actually spoke up, saying that they weren’t being paid the same rate as their male colleagues. Women find what I have to say about having courage and feeling empowered very motivating. I tell them: “Don’t be modest, have courage and confidence, feel empowered and act empowered.” I keep doing it because often what happens is you go back to your desk and you just get so snowed under that all that inspiration and motivation just completely falls by the wayside.

I think sometimes you have to hear a message a number of times before it resonates—before you know that there are other options or there are other places to go to, there are other people to surround yourself with.

That’s right. Exactly. A lot of women come to see me to talk about their careers, next steps and stuff like that. And I very often find that they’re lacking in confidence. They might have had huge experience, they’ve been incredibly successful objectively, but they talk themselves down.

You made a point before about family and the role it plays in all of this.

So. I was talking to an older friend the other day—a woman in her early seventies—and she said her mother always told her that her brothers were good looking and she wasn’t. That they had the beautiful eyes and she didn’t. And I’m thinking to myself, Oh my god, this is still the story of this woman. Despite the fact that she’s enormously successful. And a beautiful woman. And has beautiful, successful daughters who are now in their thirties. Still she remembers those words of her mother. It’s amazing isn’t it? You know, we as human beings, and particularly as parents, have such power.

Such responsibility.

To influence how a child grows into the ultimate human being that they are. So often we just don’t realise that.

I read an article where you said you were really career-driven when you first met your partner Alan, and you didn’t want to be a mother. But you went on to have four kids.

Well, I was always incredibly ambitious. And I never considered myself particularly patient or tolerant. I was very sort of: [thumps ground] “This, this, this,” and I could not imagine what it must be like being tied down by a child. I’d watch people with children and think, Oh my god, that is definitely not for me.

I don’t have that patience.

Or the capacity. And then my older sister had a child who I absolutely fell in love with. He was such a beautiful baby. And I thought, I’ll try it. I’ll have one child and see how it goes. And my eldest daughter, from the second she was born, she looked at me with such knowing, wise eyes and I thought to myself, Wow. This is incredible.

This is a person who’s going to change my life and change the course of how I do things.

Now I’ve got four beautiful, amazing human beings as my children who really enrich my life in a very, very substantial way.

Did you raise them similar to your upbringing? With that entrepreneurial spirit?

Well, I’ve always worked. My mother never worked. But I always worked. And I’ve worked in family businesses mainly. So my children have seen me as a mother who works. Always very busy and works very hard. And I think that’s put them in good stead. I mean they’re all incredibly hardworking and ambitious.

You’ve been a role model.

Yeah. Alan has been an amazing father too—that’s the icing on the cake. I really believe that. I don’t think I would have been as good a mother without him. He’s patient, playful, highly imaginative. Somewhat reckless.

How so?

Well, he’d take the kids camping and all their food would fall on the ground and they’d end up having to share one tin of baked beans and perhaps an old piece of chicken that they had to dust the dirt off. My sisters would say to me, “How can you trust Alan with the kids going camping?” But they always had a ball. Or we’d go for a holiday, he’d rent a catamaran and take them out, and they’d all be capsized within about 10 minutes.


He was an adventurous father, you know. But he was also very wise at the same time.

And you have grandchildren now?

Yeah. I had my little granddaughter who’s only five and a half months this morning actually, because my daughter had to go off for a meeting. And my grandson I have on Fridays and we go to Galleon in St Kilda for breakfast, then the park. And we might go and visit one of the other grandparents. And then we usually come into Flinders Lane because he loves it. The interesting thing is that he’s usually the only child in Flinders Lane.

How old is he?

He’s three and a half. So we play in Flinders Lane, he likes Matchbox cars and he’ll take them out to the front of the building and roll them down. And then I usually put him in the pusher because he gets tired after lunch. I’ve got this beautiful little rug that he usually puts over his head and he sleeps for two hours while I walk him. It’s lovely.

I found some words that were used to describe you, all very positive. Words like: “indomitable”, “strong”, “a force”, “leader”, “advocate.” Are they words that you’d use to describe yourself?

I can see why those words would be used to describe me. And I take them all in the most positive way. I’m very flattered by those words actually. What underlines all of them is courage—taking a deep breath and having the courage to move forward the best way you know how. And I think that’s really important. It’s almost like you have an absolute duty to do that.

A duty to be yourself.

Yeah. And to follow the courage of your convictions. You must. It’s so easy to find yourself in situations where it’s uncomfortable to say something even though you know it’s the right thing to do. I made the point about financial empowerment of women, for example, because

our society does not like to talk about women exercising financial power or being ambitious. We just don’t like it.

It’s almost a dirty word isn’t it?

Yeah. It’s like those surveys that are done when a woman is described as being ambitious, it’s actually seen as a negative trait. And when a man is described as being ambitious, he’s seen as a leader. Same trait, different gender, completely different connotation. It’s sad but true. And this is what we’re dealing with. I think that as one gets older, you have to be more outspoken about the things that matter to you. It’s really important. Having 18 men and one woman on our cabinet table to me is an absolute disgrace, but what are we doing about it? Why aren’t we marching in the streets about this?

Why aren’t we?

I think we get worn down by everyday life. So when I say, “We really need to make our voices heard about this. We really need to let the Prime Minister know that we are not happy,” everybody’s nodding. And then  everybody goes back to their everyday life and is worn down by the things they have to do. It happens to all of us. And I think the best thing that I can keep doing is talk about it. I talk about it to politicians, to non-politicians. I say, “We need to start letting our Prime Minister know that this is not acceptable. That he will suffer the consequences of this decision that he’s made about having 18 men and one woman around his decision-making table.”

We all will.

We are all suffering the consequences now. I was at a lunch the other day where somebody said, “Do you think that we would have had the budget that we’ve got had there been 50 percent women sitting around that table?” And I think that the answer would definitely be “no.” Definitely not.

We would be looking at a completely different Australia.

Because we would have diversity, and

when you have diversity of experience and diversity of views around a table, things flourish.

If the views are muzzled, well then what’s the point? There has to be a critical mass. We often talk about quotas for women.

Do you think that’s a good idea?

I’ve always been an advocate for quotas actually. Well, I should say what I’m advocating for is the paradigm shift in the status quo, and how do we bring that about? By enforcing diversity. I don’t like to use the word “quota” because it has particular connotations—around minority, right? And affirmative action. And the fact is that women are not a minority in this country. We are a slight majority. And we’re certainly in a majority when it comes to being graduates out of university and tertiary education. There are more women who are tertiary educated than men in this country. So there’s a little bit of a disconnect. I read that 60 percent of our university graduates are women, and five percent of the CEOs of our top 150 companies are women. There’s something wrong with that. I mean, maybe university education isn’t seen as being of merit in this country.

You use the word “diversity” a lot. And gender diversity is one thing. But there’s also sexual and racial diversity and many others. Does that ever come into your conversation?

Absolutely. But you know, first let’s get the 50/50 right, and then within the 50/50 we can create the diversity of the minorities. Right? Because minorities are represented in both genders. But we need to not talk about women as a minority because we are not a minority. We need to think about the language around this. “Quotas” is such an emotive word and has those connotations around it of tokenism and lacking merit.

Which is very difficult for the individual.

Absolutely. And it’s why a lot of women, when they’re interviewed, will say, “I’m not supportive of quotas, I want to get there on merit.” Well, to me, quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive. No chairman or CEO is going to appoint somebody who’s not capable of doing the job, because it’s going to reflect badly on them. You’d have to be a complete idiot to do that. But we do need to create—and I’m thinking about this very, very hard—a different word or different terminology around this issue so that people don’t start having a heart attack around the “q” word.

It’s a commitment to better representing who we are.

Right. We’re always being promised by these new corporations started by young entrepreneurs that things will be different because they’re in their twenties, they’re used to working side-by-side with women, they understand the whole diversity stuff. But then we have Facebook going public without a woman on its board.

You come from a particularly wealthy family, and I wanted to talk to you about the weight of privilege. Has that factored into your experience?

Not at all. I never thought I came from a wealthy family.


In fact, I was saying that to someone this morning who said, “How do you ensure that you are ambitious and hardworking and your children are ambitious and hardworking?” I said, “It wasn’t until I got to university and other people pointed out to me that maybe I came from a wealthy family that I had any awareness of that.” I never felt that I came from a particularly wealthy family. I was expected to work hard; I always had part-time jobs on the weekends and earned my own money. My parents were always incredibly down to earth, I felt. And I think that as a parent I’m the same. I have expectations that my children work hard and are able to support themselves.

So important.

So there was never any question that we would go to university, get degrees and be able to have jobs or create businesses to support ourselves. It was just an expectation.

Wealth makes a difference in terms of philanthropy, which I really love. Being able to support social entrepreneurs and social enterprises is very exciting to me. It does give you freedom to do things like that. So I feel very lucky and privileged in that regard.

Another word that has come up a bit is “expectation.” Of hard work and responsibility. Of giving.

And I think respect is also really important. My parents taught me the strength of being respectful. And I hope that’s something that I’ve passed on to my children; it’s something that they will pass on to their children.

I think that when one is respectful of other human beings, a whole lot of other stuff flows from that.

Trust, connection.

And valuing the contribution of the people around you.

Were you raised with any kind of spiritual or religious affiliations?

Well, I come from a Jewish family. We weren’t in a religious sense particularly Jewish, but culturally very Jewish. So contributing to the community was very much part of how I was brought up. After the Second World War my grandparents who had been here—they actually came here in the early 1920s, escaping pogroms in Russia—they used to go down to the docks every Sunday and check if Jewish families who were coming out to Australia had accommodation. My grandfather would take them in or find them somewhere to stay.

He’d look after them.

Yeah. I mean one wants to be in a society where everyone has a certain level of ability to look after themselves and be a participating part of the society. We’re very lucky in this country. We still have a very small underclass, thank god. It’s just so important that we look after people who can’t look after themselves, and make sure that they feel like a valued member of our community. Because otherwise it’s going to cause enormous stress and tension in a community.

What, in 100 years’ time, do you think people will condemn our society for? Australian society?

I think that our unwillingness to confront environmental challenges is a biggie. But I do think that human ingenuity is such that we’re going to be on the brink and there’s going to be an amazing solution. That’s just the way human beings seem to operate. You have to be right on the brink of an incredible disaster to see the solution.

Our inability to listen to the indigenous community in a meaningful and affecting way has been a great shame. Because at the end of the day I think they are going to have the answers as to what needs to happen to turn their communities around. But we need to be standing next to them and close by them to help them in any way we can. And I think our inability to do that still is really a disgrace.

What other personal qualities have contributed to your success do you think?

Some people might call me naïve but I think that I’m fundamentally a very trusting person. And I think that augurs very well for me. I get paid back in spades for that. But some people wouldn’t take that risk of being as trusting as I am. And sometimes I’ve been burned, of course. Sometimes you trust somebody and it doesn’t work out. But you learn lessons along the way, and I always say,

“You learn your best lessons through your failures, not through your successes,”

which we take for granted. We tend to say: “I appointed this person to that job and
I did that because I’m such a great judge of character!”


Whereas in fact you take a deep breath and you take a risk. I think that very often the people you take a risk with respond well. They really respond well to your trust. And you telling them they’re doing a fantastic job. And they are fabulous. And they’re making you look good.

One of the best things you can give your children is good self-esteem. The world is a place of hard knocks. And you get knocked around quite a lot. And so from your family and the people close to you, you expect to be told, “You are fabulous. You are intelligent. You are beautiful.” I think that’s really important. You need to build up self-esteem in people. When people have good self-esteem then they can really achieve great things.

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.


Photography by Sandy Rogulič

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