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Cheat Sheet: Wendy McCarthy AO

Everything you need to know about award-winning Australian businesswoman and activist, the impressively accomplished Wendy McCarthy AO.

Daniella Maryasin
Sydney Opera House

Wendy McCarthy is nothing short of a powerhouse force for change. Now in her 80s, Wendy remains Deputy-Chair of Goodstart Early Learning, a Non-executive Director of IMF Bentham, a Patron of the Sydney Women’s Fund, Ambassador for 1 Million Women, and Advisor to Grace Papers. Wendy boasts one of the most impressive resumes of her time having affected positive change for Australian women all throughout her career. 

In March, Wendy joins the line up of the 10th All About Women festival, where she will be speaking with this year's festival co-curator, Larissa Behrendt, and sharing her remarkable life story, achievements, and the lessons she has learned along the way. Before that, these are the essential things you need to know about Wendy McCarthy.

Early life

Born in Orange, New South Wales in 1941, Wendy McCarthy grew up on a soldier settlement farm. Never conscious of deprivation while she was a child, as she grew older McCarthy came to understand how simple the conditions were and how difficult her mother's life must have been. Unable to attend school past the age of 14 herself, McCarthy's mother was determined that Wendy would be well educated to ensure that her daughter had the choices she didn't have. Wendy went to a one-teacher primary school and started her secondary education at the government high school in Forbes, while living in the Anglican hostel next door. Her final year was spent in Tamworth, boarding with a family in town. 

Wendy McCarthy x Wheeler Centre

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Career and activism

Wendy started her impressive career as a secondary school teacher in Sydney before moving abroad to teach in London and Pittsburgh. Wendy returned to Australia pregnant. With six years of teaching experience, she approached the NSW Department of Education for a job in 1968 but was denied a permanent position due to her pregnancy, prompting the start of Wendy’s lifelong battle against injustice.

She joined the Childbirth Education Association, where she campaigned to allow fathers to be present at the birth and for abortion-law reform. It was an uphill battle for change. With a young child, Wendy had no access to pre-schools, no maternity leave and it was a time where access to the contraceptive pill was restricted. 

Wendy left teaching to join Family Planning NSW and became executive director of its national parent body three years later. She went on to take other duties like writing a column for Cleo magazine, being on the ABC's board for eight years, being the general manager of Australia's bicentennial celebrations, writing seven books, and running the National Trust for four years.

In 1995, Wendy set up her own consulting firm, advising companies on diversity, leadership, and work-life balance, as well as matching them with non-profit organisations to develop programs for the disadvantaged. She also went on to chair Circus Oz, McGraths Estate Agents, headspace (Australia's National Youth Mental Health Foundation), and Pacific Friends of the Global Foundation. 

With her determination and resilience, Wendy shines as a silent hero for positive change for women and mothers in Australia. While she acknowledges that women continue to not be represented equally, she has contributed to paving the way forward for women in the workforce and women's rights generally across Australia  

At All About Women, discover Wendy’s work behind the scenes helping guide and counsel women across the country. In this conversation, Larissa Behrendt, who herself has benefitted from Wendy’s counsel, explores her extraordinary life, including her body of largely unsung work.

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