Wikramanayake made headlines in 2019 by becoming the first woman to top the list of Australia’s best-paid CEOs. With a salary of A$18 million, she scored the title after becoming head of Macquarie Group in July 2018 – an achievement that was also a first for a woman.

In doing so, she stands alongside other successful Australian women in business, including Coca-Cola Amatil’s Alison Watkins and Mirvac Group’s Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz. She also outranks renowned Australian business leaders such as Qantas’s Alan Joyce and BHP’s Andrew Mackenzie.

Wikramanayake began her professional life as a corporate lawyer, but soon joined Macquarie Bank in 1987 in Corporate Services. From there, she helped establish Macquarie Capital, covering a host of corporate and investment services. From 2008, she was appointed head of Asset Management and, as of March 2018, the department reported having A$495.1 billion under management and a 10% increase in net profit.

Hailing from a wealthy, influential Sri Lankan family, Wikramanayake grew up as the daughter of a doctor in the UK. While she started school in London, she eventually attended the prestigious eastern Sydney girls’ school of Ascham. Her success in the world of business has been acknowledged in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International list, and it’s in part down to her efforts to combat climate change.

Last year, Wikramanayake became one of only three CEOs to be named commissioner of the World Bank’s Global Commission on Adaptation. She went on to lead an effort to raise A$1 billion for renewables investment.

Her family life is a testament to the power of overturning traditional gender roles. “I married late, in my late 30s, and had children then, and my husband elected to be the primary carer in the family,” Wikramanayake said. “That’s made for a lot of interesting role modelling.

“So our son, when he was little, and we asked him what he wants to do when he grew up, he said, ‘I’m going to be a normal person like my daddy,’ and when I said, ‘What will you do for money?’ he said, ‘My wife will work.’ Whereas our daughter wanders around with her high-heel shoes and briefcase, saying ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be the boss of everyone.’ I missed out on the time being primary carer for my children, but they are happy, well-adjusted children.”

Honourable mentions

Gillian Tans

The Dutch businesswoman is the former CEO of Booking.com, stepping down in mid 2019 after three years in the top job. Her passion for diversifying the tech industry and giving females equal opportunities is well documented.

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Gillian Tans

Jessica O Matthews

At age 19, Matthews invented the SOCCKET, a soccer ball that can generate power for the developing world. That was in 2008 and now the Nigerian–American entrepreneur is CEO of her own tech company Uncharted Power. She proves that age, gender or race shouldn’t stand in the way of success.

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Jessica O Matthews

From CEOs and politicians to humanitarians and athletes, we profile 30 extraordinary trailblazers creating major change in 2020. Shemara Wikramanayake, Gillian Tans and Jessica O Matthews are among the iconic women we're celebrating this International Women's Day.