Honorary Doctorate recipient Elizabeth Proust AO. Photo: Paul Jones

Elizabeth Proust reflects on smashing the glass ceiling

Elizabeth Proust reflects on smashing the glass ceiling

UOW recognises top business leader and champion for women with Honorary Doctorate

There was no such thing as a glass ceiling when Elizabeth Proust AO embarked on her own career almost 50 years ago. That elusive portal into the higher echelons of management was firmly locked to those of the fairer sex.

But Ms Proust didn’t just knock on the door, she smashed through it to become one of the first female executives in Australia’s blue chip corporate world. In a time when women were really only just entering the workforce, Ms Proust put gender equality on the agenda.

The former Wollongong high school student was recognised with an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Wollongong (UOW) today (Tuesday 17 December) for her leadership and championing of women in business.

“I spent six years in Wollongong, the duration of my secondary school years. The education I received at St Mary’s College set up the rest of my life and career,” Ms Proust said.

“Most of my family remained in Wollongong and I have been back regularly and watched the city through tough times and good, as well as the extraordinary development of the University.”

After graduating from La Trobe University in 1975, Ms Proust started her career at BP Australia as an adviser to senior management about a range of local, State and Federal political and strategic issues impacting on BP's operations in Australia.

She left BP in 1982 to become the adviser to Victorian Premier John Cain, and was the only adviser on the then Premier's staff with any private sector experience. The role was private sector consultation on a diverse range of issues including gold mining, petrol pricing, and tariff protection. She continued on as Chief of Staff, which saw her take on the responsibility for the staff of the Premier, including the Media Unit.

Ms Proust continued her studies and in 1986 graduated from the University of Melbourne with a law degree and from then on her career path took her to places few women had ever been. She moved from the Managing Director of Esanda, to Chief Executive Office of the City of Melbourne, to Chairman of the Bank of Melbourne, and  to Deputy Director-General for the Department of Industry, Technology and Resources.

With more than 30 years’ experience as a chief executive in the private and public sectors of Australian business, Ms Proust said the major achievement in her career was being the first woman to head a Victorian Government Department.

“Since then I have had a number of both challenging and rewarding public and private sector roles,” she said.

“But being successful parent and grandparent is at the top of the list. I have always wanted to make a make a difference in the various roles I have had and I hope that I have achieved that.”

UOW Chancellor Jillian Broadbent and Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings with Elizabeth Proust. Photo: Paul Jones

UOW Chancellor Jillian Broadbent, Elizabeth Proust, and UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings. Photo: Paul Jones

Now approaching her 70th birthday, Ms Proust is still actively involved in the business community. She is on the board of many boards including as Chairman of Nestle Australia Limited, Chairman of the Bank of Melbourne, and Director of Lendlease Limited.

Her achievements have been recognised with numerous awards, including the Centenary Medal for Services to Australian business in 2003, the BOSS True Leader of the Year Award in 2003, and an Order of Australia in 2010.

“When I left Wollongong after high school it was almost a one-industry town,” she said.

“It is much more diversified now. And a lot has changed in the business world too.

“After I graduated from university there were almost no women in management positions, and there were no female heads of departments.

“There are more women in senior positions now, but it is about having a critical mass of women. It has never been a problem about women being educated but more about others being able to identify talent and ensure that it is recognised.”

Ms Proust has no plans to retire, although she does admit she is not as busy as she was a couple of years ago.

“The fact is women still on make up only about 20 per cent of senior management roles, and they are mostly congregated in finance, human resources or legal departments, rather than in running big business,” she said.

“My advice to new graduates, especially female graduates, is to back yourself. I have noticed with young female graduates they are not as certain of their talents as young men and will says they need a bit more experience before going for the top roles. But all you need to do is believe in yourself.”