How Wendy is challenging what it means to be a woman in Australia


Wendy McCarthy is a businesswoman, social activist, and patron of the Sydney Women's Fund, helping women thrive through education and grassroots charities across Greater Sydney; and Regional Opportunities Australia, helping migrants and refugees get work in regional Australia.

In her long career, McCarthy has held high-profile roles including CEO of the Australian Federation of Family Planning Associations, an influential adviser to PM Malcolm Fraser through the National Women's Advisory Council, founder of the NSW Women's Electoral Lobby and deputy chair of the ABC.

In 1995 she took on the role of Chancellor of the University of Canberra, which she held for a decade. She has consistently fought for women's rights and continues the fight today.

wendy mccarthy interview

What do the Sydney Community Foundation and Sydney Women's Fund do?

We're in touch with people who are working in communities especially in Sydney's more vulnerable communities where many of their opportunities have been reduced. We know from our research that only 50% of women in Sydney are in paid employment and 48% earn $34,000 or less. That's pretty scary. And that has been followed up by the Women's Work documentary series.

Public donations are enabling the fund to show this to high schools and corporate workplaces to look at why those women are earning that money and why there are no easy answers. One says I wasn't good at maths, another says it was gender bias but didn't understand when she made the choices. These choices impact us - women retire with 45% less in super and, even as children, boys receive 25% more pocket money than girls.

The theme of IWD this year is 'choose to challenge' - what does that mean to you and how would you interpret that for women today?

In a long life of activism, I'm continuing to challenge what it is to be female in Australia. The vulnerability of women in parliament at the moment is just enragingly beyond belief. It's really very distressing.

Legislation will help. It's not the only answer, it's getting the hearts and minds of men to behave. When women are in poverty their children go with them, and they miss out on opportunities to break the cycle, and that's what I love about the Sydney Women's Fund and intervention in western Sydney. We're trying to keep families intact with education.

What was your first job?

My first paid job was the perfume counter in a department store in Tamworth - I only did it for three weeks. After that I had a scholarship to university. I worked through uni in the dining room and every uni holiday I worked. I originally wanted to be a nurse but I was 16, and at that age you couldn't go straight into nursing, so my parents said you may as well go to university as we thought that was the second-best option. But I really loved it and then I became a teacher.

I've worked since 15, in some sort of job or earning an income and only now I don't get the regular drop in my bank account from any job and it's much more confronting. Now I have to live on savings. I don't have super, but my husband and I were good money managers together.

What's the best money advice you've ever received?

The advice I've received and the advice I have taken might be two different things. The advice I was given in a broad sense was 'live within your means' and I've always done that, but sometimes when my means have increased, my expenditure has increased because of the sheer luxury of having more money. Expenditure on personal style and clothes went up. Now I look at my wardrobe and I'm now getting rid of a lot and recycling.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

In 1970, I was watching Wimbledon on a Saturday in a Mittagong motel with my husband and two babies (the youngest was six weeks old). We went there because we didn't have a television set. We decided we'd go and look around because we desperately wanted to have a bit of land.

We saw a block of land for $5000, and that set us on a pathway of a life balance between rural and urban, and we went there every weekend. At our largest holding we had 3000 acres in the southern highlands. That little farm determined a lifestyle of taking children to the country and gave us an opportunity to scratch in the dirt. We planted trees and the farm has been the go-to place for our children.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

Investing in a friend's start-up company. I knew nothing about the product, I just did it because of the friend. I didn't blame anyone, I just took the losses and thought never again.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

New experiences. I love to travel. I had an opportunity to meet Michelle Obama in Singapore a couple of years ago. I thought I wouldn't get that opportunity again, so I asked a friend and we bought tickets - that's the most impulsive thing I've done but it was worth it. I also love buying indigenous art.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

I like to invest in places where I know there is integrity. The Women's Fund is about the empowerment of women through providing them with the ability to control their lives and money.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

Cry. I'd quickly find a way to get more and weep that I'd got to that stage.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

I have been thinking about that a lot. I'll leave some money - but I'm going to give away as much as I can in the next year or so, which I have already been doing for the last couple of years.

I'd like to leave something to my children, but don't approve too much of leaving your children large amounts of money. My children have been well educated and had a good start in life, they've done very well.

What's been your best money-making career move?

Taking a risk on myself at age 55 and setting myself up (as a partner in a family company) so that I could work for myself and do things where my head and heart are connected. It was a risk but it's paid off financially, too, and that has been terrific.

Finish this sentence: money makes...
... opportunities.

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.
Lynette Thorstensen
March 10, 2021 5.03am

What a wonderful piece! You've captured Wendy's essence: wise, funny, accessible and so very generous. I was honoured to serve on the Sydney Community Foundation Board with Wendy as one of the founding Directors. I am thrilled to read that the Foundation is thriving some fourteen years later.