02 March 2020

Atlas’s success shows the way to other women

This article was written by Glenda Korporaal of The Australian.

Coca-Cola Amatil chair Ilana Atlas wishes there were more female chief executives in the ranks of Australia’s major companies.

Atlas and CCA chief executive Alison Watkins are one of the rare combinations in corporate Australia of a female chair and chief executive.

Atlas, who was awarded an AO in the Australia Day honours for her services to the financial and manufacturing sectors, as well as education and the arts, says she is “delighted to see what we have been fighting for a long time — significant numbers of women in all sectors of business”.

“But there is more work to be done,” she says. “I wish there were more women CEOs in the ASX top 50 companies.”

Atlas, who has been chair of CCA since 2017 and is a director of ANZ, has been a quiet achiever in the corporate world.

Despite her impressive list of corporate board appointments and work in the not-for-profit sector, she has kept a low public profile.

Trained as a lawyer, Atlas joined King and Wood Mallesons where she became a partner before accepting a senior role as head of HR and corporate affairs with Westpac.

After stepping down in 2010, she became a non-executive director, with board positions including Suncorp, Westfield and NSW Treasury Corporation.

She joined the CCA board in 2011 before taking over from David Gonski as chair.

Her current roles include chair of Jawun, formerly known as Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships, which forges links between the corporate and philanthropic sectors and indigenous communities.

As a young student, Atlas’s dream was to become involved in the theatre, teaching speech and drama while she studied.

But she felt she would never be a good actor and became a lawyer.

“I was a lawyer and then a partner in a law firm, which is a very satisfying career, which then led me in different directions.”

Atlas was able to satisfy her passion for the theatre by becoming a director of the Bell Shakespeare Company in 2004, taking over as chair in 2010 — a role she held for six years.

“It was great to have the opportunity to work in the theatre in some way,” she said.

“It has been incredibly satisfying to work with passionate, talented people who have produced some significant work with very few resources.”

“It has been particularly inspiring to work with John Bell.”

Atlas says her career, which also included being a councillor at the ANU from 2004 and pro-chancellor from 2011 to 2014, has been assisted by “the advocacy and support of a number of people along the way” as well as taking opportunities presented to her.

“Sometimes you are presented with something which you may think is not necessarily a role you are best suited to, but if you are prepared to take the chances that come your way, opportunities can arise,” she says.

Atlas says there have been many factors behind the rise of women in the corporate sector in Australia.

“For me it goes back to that first generation of women I looked up to in the sixties and seventies who demanded equality,” she said.

“We are now into the third generation of women who have demanded that equality.”

While other corporate leaders have started the year with a cautious note about the future, Atlas says she is optimistic about 2020.

“It has been a very tough start to the year, there is no question about that.

“But on a day like Australia Day you also reflect on how great this country is and the opportunities available in it.

“We have a very robust economy. I am optimistic about the future.”

Her other roles in the not-for-profit sector include director of the Paul Ramsay Foundation (from 2017), director of the Human Rights Law Centre (from 2012 to 2017), chair of the Westpac Foundation (2009-2010) and an advisory board member of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health (from 2008).

Atlas is one of several corporate leaders recognised in the Australia Day honours.

Former Macquarie Group chair Kevin McCann was awarded an AO for his services to business and corporate governance and as an advocate for gender equity.

McCann, who is chair of Citadel and ING Real Estate Community Living, is a former director of BlueScope Steel, a former chair of Healthscope and Origin Energy and former chair of the Corporate Governance Council.

McCann has been a male champion of change since 2010, having been involved with its foundation.

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