For Women’s History Month, we are celebrating several industry trailblazers! Among so many incredible women to shine a light, we had to spotlight the amazing Eileen O’Neill.
Before setting up her own company in September 2019, Dr. O’Neill was Executive Director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), an international organization of water quality professionals headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, (U.S) and the organizer of WEFTEC, the world’s largest annual water quality conference and exhibition. In that capacity, she led a staff of more than 100, oversaw an annual budget of $28+ million, and served as the Secretary of the Federation’s Board of Trustees.
At WEF for 28 years, Dr. O’Neill served as Executive Director for more than six years. During her WEF career, she held a variety of positions overseeing programs including as the only female and only non-engineer to serve as WEF’s staff technical lead, its Chief Technical Officer. While she was Executive Director, WEF launched a number of major initiatives including ReNEW (that established baselines for and tools to accelerate resource recovery from wastewater), and the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP) that certifies professionals that work in green infrastructure construction, inspection, and maintenance. She believes in the power of research and science and also of partnership and collaboration and brought this to her work at WEF and as an officer of the Water Environment Research Foundation and the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation. She is passionate about growing the cadre of women leaders in the water sector and beyond.
Before joining WEF, Dr. O’Neill spent ten years in academia and environmental consulting in the U.S. and in Europe. She worked on issues ranging from fate and transport of pesticides and other contaminants, to corporate environmental risk management, and environmental insurance claims. With a B.S. in Soil Science from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (U.K.), and a Ph.D. in Soil Science from the University of Aberdeen (U.K), Dr. O’Neill undertook a one-year postdoctoral traineeship in environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and holds the Board Certified Environmental Scientist Credential (with a specialty certification in environmental chemistry) from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists.
Eileen O’Neill continues to work on issues of water, innovation, and leadership and is currently a Founding Partner with Water Principles, LLC. She also serves on the Board for Global Environmental Credentialing and is a member of the inaugural Board of Directors for The Water Tower at Gwinnett, that is developing a water innovation campus, located just outside Atlanta, GA.
When invited to participate in our Industry Trailblazers series, Eileen shared: “I got my start as a scientist because my Dad, who was an Irish immigrant in the UK, believed in education and also that his daughters could do anything we set our minds to. Getting into water specifically happened by chance when, with three little girls aged 4 and under, I decided I could no longer manage the travel schedule associated with a job in environmental consulting and applied to the organization then known as the Water Pollution Control Federation (now the Water Environment Federation or WEF). It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
When asked about her accomplishments she is most proud of, Dr. O’Neill responded: “Hands down my proudest accomplishment is my daughters – who have grown into accomplished, hardworking, and kind young women — each of whom is working in a career that will make a difference in the world. As I said at the opening session at WEFTEC 2019, working in the sector allowed me to support my children on my own when I had to and to be a role model for them, or at least that’s what they tell me and it doesn’t get much better than that.“
When asked about her hopes for the next generation of women leaders, Eileen declares: “It’s been great to see both the number of women executive water sector leaders compared with 30 years ago, and also their diversity. Yet there is still so much to do! I still hear from younger colleagues that they feel conflicted as they juggle responsibilities at work and home and/or that they have to outperform male colleagues in order to advance. So, my hopes for the next generation of women leaders is that they continue to lead change in the workplace to address issues such as paid leave, flexibility, inclusivity, to allow all professionals to achieve their potential. I also hope that more women chose the water sector as the place where they can make a difference. It was recently announced women now comprise more than 50% of the workforce but we know that only about 15% of the water workforce is female. Let’s change that!“