A surge in submissions in the business and entrepreneur and social enterprise and not-for-profit categories boosted entries to The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Awards to a record high this year.
Entries in the business and entrepreneur category tripled in number, reflecting the advance in female entrepreneurs. Women today own almost 40 per cent of Australia's small businesses, contributing to a 46 per cent increase in the number of female business operators in Australia over the past two decades. More broadly, the number of businesses in Australia is also rising. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that the number of actively trading businesses rose 3.1 per cent to 2.25 million between 2016 and 2017.
It is hoped the visibility provided by the awards, which are presented by Qantas, will help lift the profile of some of Australia's most promising small businesses.
"For categories like business entrepreneur and social enterprise, where women more broadly are highly represented and where external funding is often hard fought, being recognised as a woman of influence can make a significant difference to the profile of the woman and the enterprise she leads," said Jacqueline Gillespie, senior client partner and leader at Korn Ferry Asia Pacific, who helped screen the applicants.
More submissions in the young leader category and greater representation among women in rural areas than in previous years also proved that women are exhibiting leadership in all sectors of society, said Ms Gillespie.
There was a significant drop in the number of entries (77) at executive and board level this year. Despite women comprising 47 per cent of Australia's workforce, they make up only 16.5 per cent of CEOs, according to the latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency statistics. However, the proportion of female company directors is rising. As of July 2018, women accounted for 28.2 per cent of ASX 200 company board seats.
"We often say we don't have enough women running organisations, but they're there and sometimes we're just not seeing them," Ms Gillespie said, adding "the talent in this country is hidden in plain sight".
Overall, 1511 nominations were received, resulting in almost 850 entries – a considerable increase on the 370 received in 2016, the last time the awards were held.
The final list of 100 Women of Influence will be unveiled on September 4, and the 10 category winners, and one overall winner, will be revealed at a gala event in Sydney on October 17.
Among the final 100 are recognisable names as well as hidden gems, but certain qualities link them all. These women are resilient, agile, have an ability to meet people and a strong sense of purpose that drives them and enables them to influence others.
"It's clear to them what's important. Purpose motivates what they do," Ms Gillespie said, adding that it helped them move forward and influence, even when the odds were against them or there was hardship. "Purpose maintains their clarity of direction and their energy and also really enables them to galvanise people around them.
"They're able to influence their circle, to drive and influence the agenda that they're rallying behind. And that's as true of the young leaders as it is for the executive women. That's the real differentiator."
Common to many women in the top 100 is an inspirational story of overcoming adversity – sometimes in their careers, other times in their personal lives.
"It could be a personal story about arriving here into the country and not speaking English or they've had to face illness, significant family issues, domestic violence or the things that women have to deal with," Ms Gillespie said. "But they've been able to use that as a mechanism to refine their values and to refine their purpose and keep going.
"They've been able to face into that because of their purpose and learn from it and become clearer, actually, about what they're wanting to achieve."
One area of note is the increase in women working in science, technology and engineering fields – reflecting a broader societal focus on attracting women into these sectors. "Whether they're in public policy, whether they're in business, or young leaders, there is an interesting trend toward women nominating in the STEM area," Ms Gillespie said.
"But you've also got women who are integrating lots of different experiences. You might have women from STEM backgrounds combining that with their interest in the internet of things, so there's real diversity in the group."
Gilbert + Tobin partner Moya Dodd, the overall winner from 2016 who was nominated in the arts, culture and sport category, saw an increase this year in entries from women playing sports competitively or working in that arena.
New industries also performed well, and women with broad and diverse skills were represented across social media platforms and in the innovation and young leader categories. These women use social media to get their message out and to communicate the work they're doing, alongside more traditional messaging platforms such as seminars, talks and lobbying.
"The social side of it is quite big: how they're seeing opportunities to run a business or develop a business," Ms Gillespie said, adding three or four entries came from women who run hackathons in the digital space. "Young woman are using social platforms to run a business but you're also seeing women using them to communicate what they're doing to the world and to reach more global audiences.
"If you put them all in one room they could create amazing things for this country," Ms Gillespie added.