Big Interview: Ceinwen McNeil – Part One

Ceinwen McNeil
We talk with Ceinwen McNeil, Chief Executive at BVT Engineering Professional Services, and strong advocate for diversity and inclusion.
In part one of our two-part interview, we discuss targets vs quotas, BVT’s recruitment process, and hear some horror stories that sadly still occur for women in the engineering industry.

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

I’m very passionate about diversity and inclusion in our industry, particularly gender diversity. I started my career as a communications manager on a freeway project in the mid-to-late 1990s in a very male dominated environment. I think it really set the tone for a lifelong passion around how we ensure that women and other minorities have the ability to contribute to not just workplaces, but also our community as well.

What differences do you see in businesses that embrace it?

Just brutally, performance. It’s been demonstrated that having greater diversity within your organisation’s board, ensures the company’s led in a way that takes into consideration a whole lot of factors. Whereas, a group of people who’ve been educated, trained and brought up in the same way, who tackle problems, almost, in a very tunnel vision way don’t have the diversity of experiences to bring to complex problems.

“I think the greater diversity you have around the table, the better your business is because it challenges your thinking, leading to better solutions”

Organisations that have a diverse leadership team, and I’m thinking particularly around research that Brené Brown’s done over the past 20-odd years, has shown that the performance of the workforce, and the delivery of projects and service to clients is enhanced by having a broad range of people thinking about issues differently.

What do you say to companies in the industry who are failing to focus on diversity and inclusion?

They’re setting themselves up for, not even long-term failure, but for medium-term failure.

I’m very fortunate to have a broad network. There was someone I caught up with recently from the advertising world. An agency he works with were just about to do a pitch for a huge global brand name account and the client asked before they even began their presentation, “What’s your diversity policy?” His Managing Director said vaguely, “Oh, we’re all for diversity. We’re doing it. We’re really flexible, and we’re … Yeah, we’re totes on it.” And the client said, “Yes, but where’s your policy? Where is it written down?” So the Managing Director said, “Oh, it’s actually more ad hoc.” They were immediately excluded from the procurement process, because they weren’t able to demonstrate how diversity was actually articulated and acknowledged within their operational and governance requirements. Diversity is recognised as contributing to a high-performance organisation, but accepting it as a commercial accelerator is still challenging to the status quo.

I think that’s a really, somewhat, dramatic but ultimately refreshing example of people holding organisations to account – it can no longer be lip service.

You began your career within the Australian Public Service. How diverse was that field and did you see changes during your time?

I think the Public Service has been really paramount in helping to drive greater inclusion of minorities, and in particular, women, as they’ve understood the importance of delivering public value more effectively.

The Victorian Public Service worked very closely with the Male Champions of Change to mandate that all Public Service Boards needed to have parity. They spilt all board positions and called for applications, and they went through a very deliberate selection process to say, “We’re going to have 50% men, 50% women.” Because they did that, they actually shifted the entire nation’s proportion of women on boards across Australia, and I think that ability to have public and private working together to effect change is a fantastic example of how we can collaborate across sectors; public, private and not for profit.

What’s your view on targets versus quotas?

I’m a great believer in quotas. I think they absolutely provide a level of accountability that targets don’t. I know that’s not necessarily a popular view, but the research shows that when you hit 20% representation of any minority, be it sexuality, nationality, gender, and 20% is the tipping point where people feel like that they have a coalition, people feel like that they have support and representation.

We know that when we get boards or executive teams to 20% representation, the dynamic shifts because we can have a different type of discussion. I think that ability to say, “This is the quota we’re aiming for,” makes a fundamental difference.

The other aspect is, quotas give people an opportunity to put themselves forward in situations they wouldn’t necessarily do so. We’ve all heard those examples where a woman would only apply for a role if she’s got eight out of the 10 key selection criteria, whereas a man will go, “Oh, look, I’ve probably got four, let’s give it a whirl.”

I think creating institutional and macro environments that actively seeks and encourages people to come forward, when they may not necessarily have done so, is a really powerful thing that governments and industry can do to effect change.

How have you approached recruitment at BVT?

When I took over the role at BVT earlier this year, I immediately signed us up to become a Founding Partner of the Diversity Agenda. I’m incredibly passionate about increasing the level of diversity in our organisation because I believe it provides for a healthier and more robust workplace, and also delivers greater outcomes and innovation to our clients.

We were having real difficulty in attracting women to come and work at BVT, particularly women engineers, and part of that was in relation to how do we actually attract women to come and work for us when they walk into an organisation and they see, primarily, a group of young men.

I worked with Engineering New Zealand to ask them “How do we actually increase the number of women applying for roles at BVT, and also our graduate roles?” Engineering New Zealand said, “Think about the language you’re using in your advertisements. Think about the images that you’re presenting in terms of your collateral and your marketing, and are you representing yourself as being a diverse workplace?”

We really took those recommendations on board and worked with our recruitment partners. I’m so proud to say we’re taking on 10 graduate engineers for our 2020 cohort, and 50% of them are women. People are just staggered that we’ve been able to make that movement in a space of, really, less than a year.

“By the time we get to January 2020, 39% of our workforce will be women, which, for a consulting engineering firm, is a really impressive statistic.”

I’m really proud to have been at the helm of that initiative and continue to ensure that we are supporting our workplace and recognising that there are different ways that we need to reward and recognise and motivate the different members of our workforce.

What’s the induction experience like for your new employees?

When you join a new organisation, it’s often one of the most humiliating times in your life! You’re turning up with your lunchbox and your notepad and you’ve made a really big life decision. So, ensuring people are integrating into our workforce and understanding the role and the value that they play is vital. Whenever we recruit someone, I always send a note that says, “This is what we really liked about you in our process, and these are the things that we hope you’re going to be able to achieve within our organisation.”

It’s one thing to tackle the recruitment issue, and another when it comes to retention. So, what are you doing within your existing employee base?

We offer flexible working arrangements for all of our employees, whatever point they are in their career, because we recognise that work is one part of life.

People sometimes say, “Oh, flexible working arrangements are just for parents.” Well, we have high performance athletes in our team, we have older employees who are also supporting their parents I’m a great believer that we can work anywhere, anyhow, anytime, and our clients need us to be flexible as well. If we’re always sitting in an office, we’re not seeing them.

We have a programme called Pathways, which is designed to help people own their careers, and we also support through other elements like exposure to shadowing senior executives. That’s very much a throwback to my public service days, where, as a junior public servant you would shadow a senior public servant at very senior meetings. Observing, taking the notes and doing all those things, learning through observation and how to conduct yourself.

Being a female leader of an engineering company, do you feel there’s an added responsibility to be a role model for other women?

Yes. I take the responsibility as a woman role model for the industry very seriously, so if I’m asked to speak on a panel, for example, I always say, “How many women are going to be on the panel?” If there are only men on the panel, I’ll always say to the organiser, ‘We won’t participate in this event unless there is an equal representation.” You pull other women up after you, you don’t pull the ladder up behind you.

I try to help our younger women in a very male-dominated industry, to know how they can conduct themselves in certain situations. Such as, when you’re the only woman in the room and someone says to you, “Oh, well, you can take the minutes because you probably type faster than we do.” or, “Could you answer the phone because you sound better than we do.” It’s all that casual sexism and unconscious bias that sadly still exists.

“I recently went to a very senior meeting with some professional organisations, and they thought I was the personal assistant of the managing director. I’m 42 and I’ve been around the block quite a bit – I don’t take any crap from that perspective!”

I’m very conscious that if the women within our organisation can have exposure to an environment where they’ve got support, and can see how to conduct yourself in a very professional way, but be confident enough to acknowledge, “You know what? I’ve got as many letters after my name as all of you, so no, I’m not making the coffee today.”

Sadly, it sounds like you still encounter plenty of occasions where standards are not improving?

I was at an industry breakfast in Brisbane a few weeks ago. The MC asked everyone to introduce themselves and there were two people there from an organisation and one of them was a male engineer who had just done a presentation, and the other was a female colleague. The MC said, “Oh, we’d like to thank such-and-such for his presentation today, and he’s brought along his lovely wife.” It was just so out of line… She was also an engineer.

Immediately afterwards I went up and said to the organiser, “That is unacceptable in this day and age.” I then went and sought out the woman and said, “I’m so sorry that happened, I want you to know that I’ve spoken to the organiser because it’s really inappropriate.” Sadly, she said, “Oh no. I get it all the time, it doesn’t matter.” So I said, “It actually does because it undervalues your professional experience. It is humiliating in a group of people who are there for an industry event have now looked at you and gone, “Ah, she must just be the barrel girl.'”

If we don’t have women, and men also, in senior positions to call out this behavior and say, “That is not okay in our world,” then we’re not living our convictions, and I’m fully prepared to do that.

What role do men as allies play in these situations?

I think there was a period of time where it was, “Oh, the women have got to do this,” and “Is it men bashing” and, “Oh, it’s so difficult to be …” I saw a funny quote on a plane the other day, “You’ve got no idea how hard it is to be a white middle-aged man at the moment. We don’t get any benefits.” I did have a bit of a giggle at that.

Our Managing Director is Matt Bishop and he was at the meeting I referred to earlier where the consultant thought I was the assistant, and he said to me afterwards, “That was horrific. Why would they even assume that?” I said, “Because that’s what happens.” He said, “I actually just feel mortified.”

Matt is in his late 30s and talks very candidly about when he was coming through university, he didn’t have any female colleagues, he then never worked for a woman, and never had a female client. That is a real challenge when you think about our cohorts within the engineering and construction industry. Our commitment to diversity at BVT is a team effort, and he has been instrumental in the shift.

There is a point where you think, there is a generation of people that may not necessarily have worked with women, and don’t necessarily know how to. But it has to come from our leaders, and our younger generation not to say, “Oh, we have female engineers.” But instead, “We have fantastic engineers, some of whom happen to be female.”

You can connect with Ceinwen via LinkedIn.

We really appreciate Ceinwen and other industry leaders taking the time to talk to us, and you can now read part two of this Big Interview.

If you have any great initiatives that you think would help others on their diversity and inclusion journey get in touch.

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