Still Some Glass Ceilings to Smash – Even at Harvard


Over the past three weeks I have been living on campus at Harvard Business School (HBS), undertaking the first unit of the Owner President Management (OPM) program. It is a three-year program, with participants coming from all over the world. The faculty is phenomenal. It is absolutely like drinking from a fire hose.

If you Google OPM you will see the entrance criteria are steep. I did not meet all of the criteria, namely the financial threshold of having an annual turnover of US$10M per annum. 

Hence my initial application was rejected.

Statistically only 2% of women owned businesses break the US$1M mark. You probably didn't know that, but you have probably heard the following statisticMen apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

What's my point? I didn't accept the rejection. Instead I outlined the case for my inclusion, based on evidence, articulating the need for active sponsorship of women to participate in programs like OPM and the value I would bring to the program.

In early May I found out I had been accepted. I was with my eldest daughter Olivia, on a tour of her new high school when I received the email. To her embarrassment I got a tad overwhelmed and she explained to the young women leading the tour “oh it's okay, my Mum just got into a really hard course at Harvard - she is fine, she's been before.”

A fortnight later I arrived back at HBS. I joined our cohort, known as OPM 54, a group of 150 people. It is a geographically diverse group (including six Australians and one lone Kiwi). Unfortunately, what is not diverse is the gender mix. There are fifteen women.


Ten percent of the cohort. 

It has been a long time since I have found myself in such a minority. It has thrown up some interesting group dynamics and some uncomfortable conversations. It has also led me to reflect on my past experiences:

  • The senior Partner who told me upon returning from maternity leave after having my second daughter, Sophie, that if I needed to go home to look after my children so my husband could do his job that would be fine by him. I'd been through labour, not a lobotomy. I resigned not long after.
  • The time I challenged my remuneration package after realising I was paid 25% less than my male counterparts. I was told they had been there longer than me. I responded with evidence about my expertise (talent) rather than tenure. My package was adjusted accordingly.
  • Being told at the age of 39 that I was a very lucky 'girl' to have achieved my level of success. Luck…hmmmm.

Then the positive reflections from role models and sponsorship from men such as Terry Moran AO, Jim Betts, David Anderson and of course inspiration from Male Champion from Change, former Secretary of DELWP and now EY Partner Adam Fennessy PSM. I've also been fortunate to work for women like Patricia Faulkner AO and Penny Armytage AO. Strong, intelligent and fierce women who were pioneers in the public service and then in the private sector, with a passion for social justice and conducted themselves with warmth & humour. Attributes shared by the aforementioned men.

Hence, I am a strong and forthright advocate for women to have confidence in their value, and the necessary, unique insights and point of view we provide to business and the community. 

"This is not pink washing or window-dressing. Expectations of women and men are changing. These actions will help to advance the way women are welcomed, engaged, valued and celebrated across a range of sectors." 

Elizabeth Broderick, Founder Male Champions of Change

The women and men of OPM54 are seriously impressive, from a multitude of industries, there are start-ups, multi-generational family businesses, venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs who have built and sold businesses on a scale rarely seen in Australia. 

Yet the differences in culture and nationalities do come into play, as it does in any international business setting. I am not embarrassed to admit I have struggled at with some of these dynamics over the past three weeks. This is a very male ecosystem with subtle and not so subtle cues that women are comparatively new arrivals to this world: casual everyday sexism is frequently invisible, and often accepted. Because it is hard to speak up when it occurs, it continues unchecked. 

Or as the former Australian Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison stated “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. By the second week of the program I was conscious that my standards were quite a bit higher than others. I was heartened by the response from the leaders of OPM when I raised these concerns.

Harvard Business School are striving to increase the number of women represented in their programs. They are committed to increasing the proportion of women to at least 20% by 2020, a recognised tipping point where diversity (ethnic, cultural and gender) representation begins to make a commercial and sustainable impact .

OPM has been the most challenging, intellectually stimulating and inspiring program I have ever done. The faculty are outstanding, and my company has already benefited from my participation. The friends I have made I am sure will be for life. 

But I want more. Professor Lynda Applegate summed OPM up as “the community you build here will give you the courage to go further.'” The OPM54 cohort graduates in 2020. I intend to be part of the cohort that achieves at least 20% representation for women from across the world, through active advocacy and championing of the program. OPM is already amazing but it could be exceptional if we can achieve this.

Ceinwen McNeil is the founder and managing director of client focused international strategy firm, First Follower. Drawing on over twenty years of business development and client management experience in both the public and private sectors, she founded First Follower to enable businesses to successfully navigate step growth change. Ceinwen’s direct approach, commercial acumen and exemplary stakeholder engagement skills make her a highly sought-after adviser. Visit for more information.

Ceinwen McNeilComment