Invited guests view the exhibition, "First Ladies, Significant Australian Women 1913-2013" at the National Portrait Gallery.

Invited guests view the exhibition, "First Ladies, Significant Australian Women 1913-2013" at the National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Graham Tidy

Australian society still does not recognise the full potential of women, entrepreneur Imelda Roche said on Friday at the opening of the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition celebrating a century of female achievements.

Images of Australia's first female commercial pilot, first female recipient of a Nobel prize, first female governor-general lined the walls, along with a painting of Mrs Roche who was the first Australian to be appointed chairman of the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations.

Mrs Roche said women were still undervalued.

Imelda Roche stands in front of her portrait by Paul Newton.

Imelda Roche stands in front of her portrait by Paul Newton. Photo: Graham Tidy

''In the university graduations - in so many faculties - the women are graduating in bigger numbers than the boys,'' she said.

''And there has not as yet been recognition of the contribution that so many women can make in so many diverse fields.

''Women are more than nurturers, mothers and homemakers, they have intellect that can be used to the benefit of the community where ever that community may be.''

Guests view the exhibition, "First Ladies, Significant Australian Women 1913-2013".

Guests view the exhibition, "First Ladies, Significant Australian Women 1913-2013". Photo: Graham Tidy

Mrs Roche and her husband bought the Australian franchise of cosmetics company Nutrimetics in 1968 and later acquired Nutrimetics International. The pair turned it into a business with an annual turnover of more than $250 million per year by the time they sold it 1997.

Mrs Roche went into property development and also served as the chancellor of Bond University from 1999-2003. She represented Australia at APEC's business forum under both the Keating and Howard governments.

''My 10-year-old granddaughter said to me yesterday 'why you Grandma?' (of her inclusion in the exhibition),'' Mrs Roche said.

''And I said 'I have absolutely no idea but tomorrow I will have a great answer to give you'.''

Mrs Roche has 10 granddaughters and three grandsons.

''I want there to be an even playing field for girls and boys to be able to make choices for their life and I want to see the girls have equal opportunities with their brothers.

The exhibition which Mrs Roche opened yesterday is titled First Ladies: Significant Australian Woman 1913-2013 and will be on display until June 16.

Curator Joanna Gilmour said nearly all of the portraits had been gathered from the gallery's own collection.

''These women are all the first ladies in their field,'' she said.

''The hardest part for me was to figure out who we had room for and who to leave out.''