When Catherine Livingstone successfully floated bionic ear manufacturer Cochlear on the ASX for $127 million 17 years ago, the issue of women on boards was barely a glint in corporate Australia’s eye.

It took until 2004 before the ugly truth emerged about the dearth of women directors (an embarrassing 8%) — and by that time Livingstone had quit her CEO post and was four years into a non-executive appointment on the male-dominated Telstra board.

Gender’s an issue the ferocious former accountant’s now running hard with — and the ramifications are potentially much more powerful than any change wrought by her big directorships at the national telco (which she chairs), Macquarie Bank or WorleyParsons.

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Combined with sentinel events like Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, Livingstone — and activist directors like her — could finally begin to hack down the phallus squad that dominates boardrooms and by proxy the country. That’s a real and lasting top-down power change at least the equal of a 4G smartphone.

Once derided in some quarters as a boring bureaucrat, Livingstone, now 57, successfully scaled the slippery pole with sheer persistence in a sciencey field not usually accommodating of ambitious women. Her triumph at Cochlear was parlayed into gigs at Rural Press, Goodman Fielder, the CSIRO, Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute and a spot on the federal government’s innovation review.

She ranks 57th on the Optimice Market Capitalisation Influence Index, overseeing $66 billion in shareholder value, and is 46th on the MCII connectedness index with $500 billion in wealth at arm’s length.

Much of that heft comes from Australia’s sixth-biggest company in Telstra, boasting a huge $48 billion market cap and a share price that’s surged 40% in the last year. The stock closed yesterday at $4.28 — 30% higher than when Livingstone took over as chair from Liberal Party-linked ex-chairman Donald McGauchie in May 2009. With $11 billion flowing into its coffers from the federal government to pull down its copper wires and plug customers into the national broadband network, these are salad days for shareholders — at the AGM in October, 1.5 million champagne corks popped when she strode to the podium and announced they would receive their 28 cent dividend and that it would increase over time.

Part of the credit, of course, lies with Livingstone’s CEO David Thodey — who took out the No. 1 spot on The Power Index‘s Business Bosses list earlier this year. It’s a far cry from the dark days of headkickers like Sol Trujillo and his pitbull media spokesperson Phil Burgess, who tried to blame everyone but themselves as confidence in Australia’s biggest retail float fell through the floor.

At Macquarie the picture has been less pretty post-GFC and the end of the vaunted Macquarie Model, while WorleyParsons — a multinational engineering giant that boasts 44,000 employees in 44 continues — continues to impress off the back of the resources boom.

Australian Shareholders Association CEO Vas Kolesnikoff says Livingstone is now “Australia’s most highly influential female director … she’s drawn on kudos from her early Cochlear days to now have a diversity of roles in telecoms, global resources contracting to banking and investment banking”.

It’s her even temperament that sets her apart. “She’s extremely measured which I have heard some describe as boring — that’s probably a good thing,” Kolesnikoff said.

Her power is pervasive — Aaron Bertinetti of leading proxy advisers CGI Glass Lewis says Livingstone serves as the titular head of a group of professional women directors — including Carolyn Hewson, remuneration guru Jane Hemstritch, Anne Breen, Illana Atlas and Nora Scheinkestel — who sit on “four or five” boards and serve as inspirations for younger executives surging through the ranks. “She’s leader of the old guard; that is in turn encouraging as a magnet to attract younger candidates,” he said.

Stephen Crittenden, who serves alongside Livingstone on the National Museum Trust (one of three not-for-profit/government appointments), told The Power Index his “quiet, determined” president “has a brain the size of a planet”: “She’s unfailingly polite and appropriate at all times and very, very formidable.”

Somewhat strangely for someone so keen to champion women’s progress, Livingstone — who declined to be interviewed — maintains the “chairman” title in her Telstra guise. But she had been front and centre driving a new Gillard government program, BoardLinks, which aims to marshal female executive talent into public sector directorships, where the government has committed to a 40% target by 2015.

The bigger challenge — and what would represent a lasting legacy if Livingstone could achieve it — is addressing the imbalance on the ASX 200 — while the percentage of women has steadily increased to 13.3%, half of all boards don’t have any women at all. Expand that to the ASX 500 and the picture becomes grimmer — just 9.2% of directors are women.

The best way to do that, of course, would be to take Joe Hockey’s advice and enforce legislative quotas. While Livingstone has said Australia needs to move to 40-50% of women on boards, she is yet to speak out about making it law.

Crittenden recounts a marquee day soon after Livingstone joined the museum’s board of trustees in January. “She rang us individually as trust members when she came on and just sat there in silence for half an hour and I just went ‘blerggh’ … and it was clear that within the month she’d absorbed it all and had been listening intently. She’s transforming the Australian Museum, quietly forging for change,” he said.

The devastating operator might have to raise her voice a little louder to achieve the same thing on the gender question. It’ll be the true test of her proven power reserves that make her No. 2 our directors’ list.

Catherine Livingstone’s directorships:

  • Corporate: Telstra (chair), Worley Parsons, Macquarie Bank Limited, Macquarie Group Limited
  • Not-for-profit/government: NSW Innovation Council , Australian Museum Trust (president), The George Institute, Chief Executive Women

Catherine Livingstone’s ASX connections — click to enlarge

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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