Engineers Australia CEO, Dr Bronwyn Evans AM, has been appointed as the first female CEO of, not one, but two respected institutions. Her achievements in her male dominated profession of engineering are equally impressive. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
Australia’s track record for promoting women to the CEO of large organisations is disappointing. As at late 2020, there were only 10 female CEOs of ASX200 companies and 32% of women on Boards. So, for a woman to be appointed as the first female CEO of, not one, but two highly respected institutions, is both impressive and inspiring.
The woman in question is Dr Bronwyn Evans AM. Currently, she is CEO of peak industry body Engineers Australia which, with 100,000 members, is the fourth largest industry group in Australia. Since only 15% of engineers are women, Dr Evans’ appointment as their first female CEO is all the more auspicious.
Previously, she spent over five years as the first female CEO of Standards Australia, which develops safety and technical standards for hundreds of industries. There, she innovated the standards development process, for which she was recognised with a 100 Women of Influence Award.
Her contribution to engineering, standards and medical technology have been recognised with an Order of Australia. If that’s not enough, Dr Evans also has a PhD in Engineering and is an experienced board member, among other achievements. In person, however, Dr Evans is as down-to-earth as they come. Warm and engaging, she welcomes the opportunity to share her leadership journey and lessons learned, so that other women may benefit from her experience.
Where it all began
Dr Evans didn’t wake up one day and decide she wanted to be a CEO. Her career goals were more pragmatic than that. One of seven children, money was usually tight, so from a young age her goal was financial independence – and keeping up with her siblings.
“Was I ambitious? Absolutely. I come from near the bottom end of a large family, and let me tell you, from a very young age I’ve been saying: ‘Wait for me!’” Dr Evans says.
Her mother, Joyce, was a child of the Depression and keen for her brood to benefit from an education. Her own dreams of becoming a teacher were thwarted because she’d had to leave school at age 14. Fortuitously, around the time Dr Evans and her siblings were finishing high school in the 70s, the then Whitlam government abolished university fees, making tertiary education accessible for a generation of students. “It was a time of possibility,” Dr Evans says.
Urged on by her mother and encouraged by her high school mathematics teachers, Dr Evans knew she didn’t want a traditional female role.
“One of the challenges of coming from a family with not much money is you tend to think about what careers are going to give you a decent income,” Dr Evans explains. “Most professions women were congregating in then were not well paid. And that was not where I was gonna be.”
Ironically, despite the fact she thought engineering was “hot and dirty and loud and exciting,” she didn’t consider it for her career until her then future husband suggested it. A mechanical engineer, he persuaded her to study electrical engineering, noting her strengths in physics, chemistry and mathematics.
“It was the perfect choice,” she says. “It’s a bit like when you don’t know what good looks like, but when you see it, you realise ‘ah, that fits really well’.”
One of the boys
In her electrical engineering classes at the University of Wollongong, Dr Evans was usually the only woman. This never troubled her, nor did it bother her male classmates, who treated her as one of the gang.
“We were all just young and goofy together, helping each other get through our degrees. The gender divide didn’t seem to be a major issue. If anything, it was more about the different tribes of engineers. So, we electrical people stuck together!” she says.
Similarly, on her first job as an engineering cadet, Dr Evans was often the only woman on her team, but never encountered any overt discrimination or harassment. Rather, she found a willing mentor in the senior engineer, who helped her gain valuable experience by placing her on interesting projects. He also encouraged her to get her driver’s licence (“I’d been riding my bicycle everywhere”) so she could be independent. While she didn’t feel out of place, Dr Evans recalls lacking the confidence to ask questions in case it revealed how little she knew.
“The fact is, they knew I didn’t know anything! You’re an engineering student – no one’s going to think that you come fully formed with 30 years’ experience in year one,” she says.
Asking questions shows you are interested and want to learn. “If I was going to give myself, or anyone any advice, it would be to learn how to ask good questions. Now that’s a skill,” Dr Evans says.
Understanding her motivations
Dr Evans has always had a healthy curiosity and a desire to learn. She read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch at 16, at the urging of her feminist older sister. As an adult, she expanded into personal development books, which were popular at the time. “So I went through that phase… and came out the other side,” she says, “with a good smacking of pragmatism from my mother Joyce, who didn’t have time for books on psychoanalysis!”
The outcome, however, was a deeper understanding of herself and her motivations. “While you can only guess other people’s motivations, you’ve got a chance of understanding your own,” she says, which in Dr Evans’ case, was to pursue roles that attracted her interest.
Communicating with confidence
Dr Evans’ first major leadership role was in Singapore, where she ran GE Healthcare’s Asian operations for Ultrasound Service. She loved the conglomeration of cultures, and admired her multilingual colleagues, especially when her Australian accent proved difficult for people to follow. Dr Evans describes comical scenes reminiscent of a classic ‘I Love Lucy’ episode.
“I’d say something, then all heads would turn to Lince, my Head of Finance from Indonesia, who would repeat it in her own accented-English, which they could understand!” she laughs.
The experience taught her how to be a good communicator. She learned not only to speak slowly and clearly, but to find more succinct ways of delivering her message, tailored to her audience.
“Even if English is everyone’s first language, not everyone in your audience has the level of detail on a particular topic. Learning how to respond to an audience is a skill that I’ve just found universally very useful,” she says.
Good leaders need to be good communicators in order for their team to understand and support their vision. Tailoring your message to suit your audience will improve engagement and buy in.
Investing in herself
Several years later, as a member of the Cochlear executive team, Dr Evans made a conscious decision to further invest in her communication skills. Her role required her to speak publicly, and it was important to her that she project the same credibility she’d observed in her peers and Cochlear’s CEO. So she undertook singing lessons to learn how to use her voice, and a National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) executive communication course.
“I found that if I could use my voice well and sound credible, it gave me the confidence to feel credible. And ultimately, if I can be so bold, to be credible,” Dr Evans says. “It was a really good tool to build confidence in myself.”
As her career progressed, Dr Evans also employed the help of professional mentors. Working with them, and through her own observation, she has identified three key areas that career women need to develop to position themselves for leadership opportunities.
The first is job performance; an ability to not only do your job, but to do it well. “You need to make sure your performance is credible. That’s the minimum bar,” Dr Evans says.
The second is building a professional presence, both intellectually and physically. Dr Evans suggests reading widely on world economics and geopolitics, in order to engage with confidence on a range of topics. Physically, learning how to speak in public is important, but so is dressing for the role.
“When I was on plant at the power station or construction jobs, I would wear whatever kit was appropriate. You don’t want how you dress to detract from your professionalism,” she says.
Finally, aspiring leaders should build a public profile. “It doesn’t matter how well you perform or present if no one knows about you,” she says. Dr Evans suggests building a profile by doing such things as speaking at events, writing a blog, or taking on projects.
“Rounding out your leadership with these three elements means that you can position yourself well for a role if it comes up,” she says.
Perfection isn’t possible
Asked whether there are different expectations for female CEOs than their male counterparts, Dr Evans’ is unwavering. “Absolutely!” she exclaims, citing the first female US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who says women aren’t allowed to be mediocre.
“Not that anyone could accuse Madeleine Albright of being mediocre! But it’s a sad fact that, for women the world over, we can’t just bump along,” she says. “This whole framing of perfection… you can never be perfect – it’s not possible!”
While she may not claim to be perfect, Dr Evans appears to have perfected her approach to leadership. Certainly, her success in the male-dominated engineering profession, and as a female CEO, should be an inspiration to women seeking to follow in her footsteps.
Dr Evans’ Key Leadership Lessons Learned
© This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA