A fighter in the women's corner

'Every time I open a newspaper and I see business leaders being interviewed or a panel of business leaders and there's not a woman, I tear my bloody hair out," Carol Schwartz says. "It drives me nuts."

'Every time I open a newspaper and I see business leaders being interviewed or a panel of business leaders and there's not a woman, I tear my bloody hair out," Carol Schwartz says. "It drives me nuts."

She leans back in her office chair, perched a few floors above Melbourne's chichi Flinders Lane. Walls and corridors are filled with art works, and the picture windows are draped with sheer curtains laced with pink swirls and filigrees.

It would be a pleasant business retreat but for the constant banging from jackhammers and drills on two property developments outside.

One is BHP Billiton's future global headquarters, a 20-storey glass and concrete building with an atrium linking Flinders Lane to the historical facades of Collins Street.

The other is a site Schwartz and her husband, the entrepreneur and publisher Alan Schwartz, bought two years ago for $13.3 million. The building's facade has been preserved and a couple of floors are being added. Soon it will house Schwartz's new offices, a dance studio, and spaces for art and jewellery galleries.

Here then is big-monied mining and industry slammed up against Melbourne's art world. Schwartz loves this sort of stuff, this mix of trade and commerce. Melbourne, she says, is like a little New York.

Schwartz, in turn, is a lot like a New Yorker, one with admirable self-confidence. She says simply: "I am an indomitable business person who is very curious, who is happy to take risks, and who is married to somebody who understands that culture and very much lives that and breathes that as well."

And where does this pluckiness come from? "I think family influences is crucial. Indomitable spirits, particularly in a child, can only be crushed by family or school environments, and I was lucky enough to be born into a family where that spirited behaviour was really encouraged and celebrated."

Schwartz, it must be said, is one of the more prominent members of the Besen dynasty, which developed major shopping centres in Melbourne and Sydney and founded the Sussan fashion retailing empire, now owned by her sister, Naomi Milgrom. She is a director of the Schwartz family's Qualitas property group and Yarra Capital Partners private equity firm, and she is on the boards of several Besen family-controlled companies.

She is also a former president of the Property Council of Australia and has served on the boards of the Industry Superannuation Property Trust, the Docklands Authority in Victoria, the Australian Ballet School, the National Gallery of Australia and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. She is a director of the Sydney Institute and St James Ethics Foundation.

For all that, Schwartz is perhaps best known as a lateral thinker with particularly robust views on women in business and leadership.

Her quest for decades has been to get women elevated into boardrooms and positions of power because she believes the entrenched gender imbalance leads to narrow approaches in problem-solving, and therefore in decision-making.

She cites a forthcoming conference in Sydney, focusing on Australia and China, boasting 22 male speakers and just two women. "How outrageous is that?" she says.

Men might not see it as outrageous they look around and see visions of themselves reaffirmed in all areas of leadership. Schwartz argues that to break that mindset there needs to be a more vigorous promotion of women's profiles generally.

"As a nation, we are really missing out in [not] having more women participating at leadership levels," she says, adding that some of the obstacles result from the costs and structure of childcare and taxation.

More female politicians are leading major debates on such policies these days - something she welcomes - but even with the country led by a female prime minister, the wider gender divide remains.

"I would really like to see more women in political participation from whatever side of politics," she says. But the rough-house world of politics is not for Schwartz: "Never. I wouldn't have the stomach for it. I think I'm too sensitive [to criticism] and the exposure of my family."

Schwartz graduated with degrees in law and arts (languages) at Monash University in 1977, but segued out of law after just a few years. Law for her was "a mind-expanding exercise".

"I saw it as an intellectual pursuit. I probably knew from quite early on that I was most likely not going to be a lawyer for too long - it was too constraining and it didn't allow for an entrepreneurial spirit." She especially disliked the profession's tendency to push young female lawyers into litigation or family law instead of encouraging them to tackle tax law or mergers and acquisitions.

Schwartz was more intent on running her own show anyway, and on a trip to Los Angeles - then the centre of the lycra universe - she saw how the actor Jane Fonda had carved a business empire based on aerobics workouts.

On her return, she renovated a building in central Melbourne and, in 1981, set up an aerobics studio with classes taught by students from the Victorian College of the Arts. Seven years later, she found the task of caring for her first child and managing the studio increasingly onerous.

"I had to be there at six in the morning and until nine at night," she says. "I couldn't afford to have a manager, so basically I was doing everything myself, and I found when I had a little baby, it was impossible. I was dragging her in a little basket, [putting her] under the table."

She returned to Monash University and did an MBA. "I quite liked the solitude of being at a desk and reading interesting material, researching. I liked that aspect of it, and the interaction of classmates and colleagues. It was just like a perfect world for me."

After she finished the MBA, Schwartz's father, Marc Besen, asked her to help manage the family's considerable property portfolio.

What riles Schwartz in the wider business world though is the lack of females in leadership roles. One method of encouraging women has been the mentoring opportunities offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, for example, which pairs wannabe female directors with incumbents.

Another - one Schwartz considers far too weak - is the requirement for companies on the Australian Stock Exchange to state what progress they have made in adding women to the boardroom each year. It's a shaming device that forces companies to explain their lack of action.

While representation rates are on the rise, the pace is sluggish. Of the 1667 directors in Australia's top 200 listed companies at March, only 204 (13.9 per cent) were female.

That compares with a representation rate of 8.3 per cent in 2008. But it slides dramatically among the next 100 companies: 60 of them do not have any women on their boards.

Schwartz wants a quota system implemented, and says she does not understand why anyone would consider this a form of tokenism.

"I don't know why the notion of merit and quotas should be seen as mutually exclusive," she says. "A quota system just creates a larger database of meritorious people. You are going to appoint the right person to do the job, but what you have to do is make sure that you have a full spectrum of potential candidates, which very often doesn't happen."

To widen the "framework" for getting women promoted, Schwartz set up the Women's Leadership Institute Australia about three years ago. It serves as a networking and a promotional base to get more women seen and heard in places of power, such as business forums or in the media.

This year it published a book outlining how to nominate women for Australian honours. It's part of an effort to even out the split in recognition from rates of 30 per cent women and 70 per cent men. Schwartz understands what that recognition means: she is a recipient of the Centenary Medal (2001) and a Member of the Order of Australia (2006).

But she is the first to admit that, despite her best intentions and constant optimism, all her banging on about women's issues seems to amount to nothing. Progress in representation is slow. For someone who likes to see change and action, it's a constant disappointment.

"I feel like a complete failure," she says. "Seriously, I do." But she is not going to give up.

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