Breaking the glass ceiling with Marnie Baker

Breaking the glass ceiling with Marnie Baker

WORDS: Kimberley Furness | IMAGES: Gingerhouse Photography

Marnie Baker is a trailblazer who, as the first female managing director in the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s 160-year history, is leading the way for women in an intensely male-dominated banking industry.

“I was really overwhelmed by the response to the appointment. I didn’t realise what a significant thing I was doing or how significant the decision being made was,” Marnie says.

“The surprising thing for me was receiving close to 400 pieces of communication from women who worked for other financial institutes, and predominantly the major banks, along the lines of, ‘You don’t know me but I felt compelled to write to congratulate you and say how wonderful this is for the industry’.”

This response shows the industry is ready for more women to be taking on leadership roles, and that many women working in the field are ready to step up and follow Marnie’s lead.

Marnie fills the key role of leading Australia’s fifth largest retail bank after taking over from long running CEO Mike Hirst in July 2018. The appointment of Marnie as the new CEO is significant for women in leadership. She is among four women holding the bank’s nine top executive positions, and one of 14 females holding CEO positions in Australia’s top 200 ASX-listed companies.

“If this (my appointment) shines a bit more light on the fact we don’t have enough women in senior leadership roles, that’s great.

“We’ll know that we have real gender parity when this is no longer a conversation we are having. That is the point which disappoints me; we still have to have the conversation when we shouldn’t.

“Maybe Bendigo and Adelaide Bank is a bit more unique to other organisations or industries but I never once felt that there was anything stopping me in this organisation.

“I didn’t think of myself as a gender. I was just Marnie.

“This is what happens in life if you have the right mindset, if things aren’t thrown and there are no artificial impediments put in the way.

“There are so many bright, capable women in all different industries; it shouldn’t be unusual.”

Marnie was born and raised on a dairy farm in Cohuna – pronounced kee-una by the locals – a small rural community situated between Echuca and Kerang on the Murray Valley Highway.

From a young age, she came to appreciate the unique nature of small town living where everyone in your community wears many different hats. But her key lesson was that to make a difference you need to be involved.

“My parents were part of so many different committees and involved in so many aspects of the community. I learnt by observing and becoming a part of what it takes to build a community and be a part of something.”

Marnie studied a Bachelor of Business (Accounting) at La Trobe University Bendigo before joining the bank in 1989, when it was then known as Sandhurst Trustees.

In her 30 years with the bank, Marnie has worked across many areas including treasury, capital markets, technology and payments systems, digital strategy, retail banking and funds management, and been a member of the executive team for nearly two decades.

“People will often ask how I can stay in an organisation for such a long period of time.

“Working in an organisation like this (the bank) was so natural for me. It had values, beliefs and a purpose that were really aligned with my own.

“When you really believe in what you do and you’re a part of an amazing team who are doing fantastic things that are having a real impact on the ground and right across Australia, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?”

It’s not only Marnie who is a stalwart of the organisation, as her husband Richard recently celebrated 35 years with Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

“I have this organisation to thank for meeting the love of my life and my family,” she says.

As a mum of three boys aged 21, 19 and 17, Marnie has come to expect questions about balance. She attributes living in a regional centre to helping her get a better balance in relation to family and work.

“My three boys all went through child care. To be a block away from the crèche they were attending made it so much easier, as did knowing the people who were looking after them.

“Over time, you read a lot on the topic of women can have it all; you can have this great career and the family life you’ve dreamt of. You can’t. It’s a fallacy. It’s setting women up to be disappointed in their life.

“Life is about trade offs. It’s about what you are willing to sacrifice or trade off at any particular point of time.

“I made a decision really early on when I had children that regardless of what was happening at work, I was going to attend every single one of their school sports days. I never missed one. That meant something to me and I know it meant something to my kids. That was a trade off I made.”

Marnie also adds that her husband and extended family network helped through the earlier years.

“I have a wonderful husband – make sure you write that so he reads it – and a great extended family.

“It’s important to have a great network that supports you, and I’ll say physiological support which can be more important than the physical support you get from time to time.

“As a working parent you can beat yourself up. You are your own worst enemy. You can talk yourself into believing you are not being the best parent you can be. That’s where the physiological support you gain from your network is really important.”

Marnie can clearly recall a moment of parent guilt when her children were in primary school.

“I can remember sitting the boys down and asking them the question, ‘Would you like mum to be more like some of your friend’s mum’s and be at home more and not work as much?’.

“They looked at me strangely and said, ‘But why Mum?’.”

Marnie explained to her boys that some mum’s organise play dates after school rather than their children going into after school care.

“And they said, ‘But why Mum?’.

“It was at that point in time I realised my kids didn’t know any different. That’s how they had been bought up.

“You spend all your time wondering if you’re doing the right thing and hoping it isn’t going to have an adverse impact on them as adults. Now my kids are older, I can confidently say it hasn’t. I’m so proud of my three boys; they are really great men.”

Marnie, who has clearly been a positive role model for her children and instilled them with a strong work ethic, says the role models through her career have been “just the everyday people that you meet”.

“I can say my parents were my role models. A lot of people say a role model has to be a leader or senior person in the organisation but my role models were all around me. Both male and female,” she says.

“It wasn’t necessarily someone who I reported to or who had a more senior position than I did, they were simply people I admired for their tenacity or their ability to care passionately for something.

“We are lucky in this organisation to partner with over 322 communities across Australia through our community banking model, and seeing what these selfless people do out in their communities – for no formal recognition, no reward or remuneration but for the passion they have for their local area – is what makes them my role models.”

As managing director, Marie leads 7,200 staff and believes supporting each of her staff to be the best they can be is a key part of her role.

“I’m a really strong champion of the next generation of our leaders and next generation thinking.

“Being a curious person, I’m excited about the future. I have one foot in the present and one foot in the future the whole time; thinking about it and imaging just what could be.

“I love spending time with younger people in the organisation. I ran a millennial conference last year – it was the first time we’d done it as an organisation as I just love the way they think.

“I was so extremely fortunate to start with this organisation when it was very small so I was able to get involved in so many things that in a larger organisation you wouldn’t have the opportunity to.”

Marnie has always been a trailblazer in the bank – the first female to go into the boardroom at Sandhurst Trustees, the youngest female executive, and the honour role goes on – but these things take time and time is something we can lose track of.

“I was preparing to go in and speak to a group of La Trobe University Bendigo graduates recently, and I thought to myself, ‘I could be their mother’. That was the day it dawned on me that I am now the older generation.

“I see my role as giving younger people in our organisation a real voice of change.

“When you get older, most of your professional career is behind you. You spend all your time drawing on past experience and what you’ve done and how you use to do it. Yet you speak to a younger person starting out in their career and they don’t have that backward look. They only look forward and think ‘what if?’’ and ‘why couldn’t we?’ I love that enthusiasm. It challenges you.”

Marnie Baker

Looking back is not a bad thing though, especially when you can remember where you have come from and celebrate where you have arrived.

“My father said something that brought me to tears when I told him about this appointment. He said, ‘I’m not just proud of you for getting the role but I’m more proud of you for not having changed who you are’. That meant more to me than any other comment I could have got; it goes to the heart of who I am. I would be mortified if I thought I’d lost me through my career.

“There is nothing worse than seeing people change as they progress through their career.

“I’ve lived by one rule my whole life – treat others how you would like to be treated. It’s that simple. If you live by that, you can never get too big for your boots, you can never lose sight of what’s important, you remain grounded and you remain real.”

Marnie is proof you don’t need to run off to the city to break the glass ceiling – opportunity awaits in regional and rural communities.

“Coming from a small country town, working in a regional centre and having a family; none of this stops you from being able to reach your full potential. And it shouldn’t stop you.

“Perhaps we (the bank) are changing a part of the stereotype of people needing to work and live in a capital city to be able to do the job that they are looking to do, to reach a level in an industry they are looking to reach.

“It’s all available here,” she says gesturing out towards the cityscape of Bendigo.

Marnie has achieved many levels of success in her life, both personally and professionally, and as her 400 emails and calls of support from women show, she is leading the way and making a difference.

“The type of person I would like to be seen as, and I hope I am seen as, is real. Genuine. That people can say, ‘If she can do that, I can do that’.”


This article was first published in OAK Magazine Issue 4 (September 2018).

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