Big Interview: Ceinwen McNeil – part two.

Ceinwen McNeil

Sean Barker, from the Diversity Agenda, continues his chat with Ceinwen McNeil, Chief Executive at BVT Engineering Professional Services.

In the conclusion of our two-part interview, we discuss Ceinwen’s education experience and how different it is for her daughters, that time she challenged Harvard Business School on their admittance policy, and the importance of owning and celebrating femininity. (If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here)

There’s an issue where young girls are losing interest in STEM subjects early in their schooling. What was your studying experience, and what can we do to better engage girls in STEM?

I’ve got two daughters, a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old, and both absolutely love STEM in a way that was not prevalent in the curriculum when I was going through school.

Unfortunately, I went through school in an era where boys were far more encouraged to go into chemistry, physics and maths, whereas career guidance for girls was much more around humanities, teaching, nursing and other “traditionally female” occupations.

I finished high school in the mid-1990s, and the shift that has occurred has been huge. When my youngest daughter started school, we went to her information night and were told this is the first generation of children who have only ever known swipe technology. They’ve grown-up with iPads, so the way they absorb information, reference and calculate is completely different to how I learned. My eldest daughter is at high school, and both the girls have already been taught how to code. She’s recently completed a robotic challenge event that parents attended. They built robots out of Lego, coded them, and then had to calibrate them to complete a series of challenges.

“We are capturing the hearts and minds of women in STEM far earlier, because technology is their world. They don’t see it as a subject, it is something that they live and breathe.”

There would have been 250 students, plus teachers and parents there so close to 1000 people on a Saturday, and what made me so excited was the number of all-girl teams. They were just so engaged and were absolutely giving the boys a run for their money. But for those girls, it hadn’t occurred to them that it could be any different, and they haven’t had the systematic separation that they shouldn’t be there which I went through in my schooling.

I think we are absolutely going to be in for, and pardon the pun given the work we do at BVT, a seismic shift when the young girls of today start to get to tertiary education. They really will change the world.

What was your experience of studying at Harvard Business School?

The Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School (HBS) is the most elite executive programme that you can do there.

I was only the second woman from Australia to be admitted to that programme in its history, and it’s been running for more than a decade. I was so excited to get there, but when I arrived I realised that of 150 participants in the programme, there were only 12 women.

I wrote a blog about it [available here], but it was that kind of moment where it was like, “We’re at the most elite business school in the world, and these are the people who are absolutely leading and championing change across the world, and we’ve got such a small representation of women.”When I traced it back, and they got a little bit annoyed with me, the criteria for entrance into the programme was that your company had a minimum revenue of around US$10 million per annum, and you had to be a business owner or have a major equity share.

Now, statistically there’s something like only two percent of women across the world in the category of entrepreneurship and business owners, and only two percent of them ever crack US$1 million revenue. So, if only two percent of women globally crack a million dollars, and you’ve set the threshold at $10 million for this incredibly elite business programme, you’re systematically discriminating against women.

I went to the faculty and said, “We need to look at the eligibility criteria,” and there was a quota discussion and target discussion around, how to ensure that we, not make it easier for women to get into, because we don’t want things to be easier as we want to be there on our own merits, but we need to recognise there are factors such as intergenerational wealth at play. I’m thinking about in India, for example, and parts of Asia where businesses have been passed down to the first born, or the middle son and, therefore, have intergenerational advantages building up.

You’re now seeing women across the world being able to own and operate businesses and we may be still be kind of new to the game, but if we don’t have the ability to access those programmes and educate ourselves and, more importantly, get access to those networks and power bases, then how do we get to the big boys’ table, so to speak?

And what’s happened? Are there changes, or are you still trying?

Look, I would love to say there’s been a huge shift, and I’m due to go back in 2020 as it’s a three-year programme. I know they have put some things in place, but it’s a big institution. It’s a little bit like turning the Titanic with a teaspoon.

I haven’t had a formal update on what’s happening, but I think regardless of whether or not it’s Harvard or any of the leading business schools, we need to be really conscious of whether we’re making it a fair playing field.

A story that is referenced from back in the day is that anyone could apply to be a police officer in Australia, as long as they were six foot tall. So, it’s like, “The criteria is fine, anyone could be here” But in reality, there wouldn’t be too many women that would crack six foot. So, being conscious that when we do set criteria and frameworks for any kind of environment, we need to ask the questions, “Are we being inclusive?” and, “Are we being merit-based?”

I’ve got two young girls and my eldest, who’s four-and-a-half, really enjoys football due to my wife and I loving the game. There’s a lot of professional football on our TV, which is male dominated, but last month we all watched the Women’s World Cup every morning. It took just three days for her to stop asking, “Where are the boys?” and, “Is that player a boy?” as by the third day, they were just footballers.

I think this shows the importance of exposure to women doing “normal” things – whether it’s kicking a ball, flying a plane, or being an engineer. Would you agree?

I strongly believe that if you don’t see it, you can’t be it. So I love this story. I’ve just written it down because my youngest daughter is mad keen on football and we watched ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ last week. Now, first of all, she didn’t know who David Beckham was, so I was like, “Oh, my God. I’m getting so old!” but, you know? Watching girls play, is a really powerful example.

The more we see women in a range of professions, including professional sports, then we are re-enforcing to our young women, “You can choose to do whatever you want to do.”

And I think our institutions are now supporting that visibility and exposure, and I think power to Engineering New Zealand and the Wonder Project, as we’re starting to capture the hearts and minds of our young women. The fact that professions like engineering and architecture and design and coders and mathematicians and scientists can help change the world and make it a better place for all, is really exciting.

Why were you so committed to signing up to the Diversity Agenda and adhere to what we’re trying to achieve?

As the leader of an organisation within this sector I believe that we have a responsibility to play our role in lifting the numbers, because if the tide rises, we all rise. I believe, as an industry we can always do better, and we can always do greater things. If this is a small part that we can play as an organisation, then that’s what we should be doing, and I’m personally very passionate about it.

“I’m a huge fan of Susan Freeman-Greene [Chief Executive of Engineering New Zealand], maybe even a fangirl, and I love what she’s been able to effect in terms of really transforming Engineering New Zealand to a really contemporary membership-based organisation that is focused on making a difference in the world.”

I think we can do so much more as a coalition of the willing and if BVT can play a role in that I’m really excited to be able to contribute.

I also think Engineering New Zealand are to be commended in terms of the work that they’ve done, and we really are very proud to be associated with Engineering New Zealand, both as a professional member, but also as a Professional Development Partner. I think we continue to look to our professional body for not just guidance and support, but also opportunities to spread the word.

Lastly, how vital is it that you can still celebrate being a woman in the engineering industry?

I feel it’s so important – and this is a core element of me. I love shoes, I love clothes, I love hair, I love makeup. Simply because I’m leading an engineering company doesn’t mean you need to leave your femininity behind, and I was fortunate to be mentored by some really amazing women throughout my career who always taught me that.

I think sometimes we forget that, there was a period in time where women felt they had to be like men to succeed, and I think now we’re moving into that new era where we can celebrate not only having cracked the guy ceiling, for want of a better description, but doing it in heels and lipstick at the same time. I think that’s pretty amazing.

I was in an Uber the other day and the guy picked me up from the office. He said, “What do you do?” I said, “I work in an engineering consulting firm.” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, what do you do there?” I said, “Oh, I’m the CEO.” He hit the brakes, turned around, and went, “Holy crap. You’re not an engineer, you’re running an engineering consulting firm, you’re a relatively young, attractive woman. Man, you’re like living, breathing, cracking the glass ceiling.” He goes, “You’ve made my day. People like you really make me feel good about where the world’s going. Thanks so much.”

I laughed and said… “I’ll take that.”

It’s a serious topic, but I think we can also enjoy those moments. We are making a difference. We really appreciate Ceinwen and other industry leaders taking the time to talk to us.

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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