Seeing the World Differently: Marilyn Swinney
KNOW YOUR WORTH: FEARLESS STORIES AT WORK, BY
Marilyn Swinney is familiar with feeling like an outsider, just for being who she is. More than 20 years ago — after graduating from the University of Manchester in England with a textile technology degree — Swinney made the selection process for a graduate production manager role at a manufacturing facility, affiliated with an international, blue-chip company.
Raised in Malaysia, of Sri Lankan-Chinese descent, Swinney was diagnosed at birth with Stargardt’s disease, which is a genetic disorder that causes progressive vision loss, eventually resulting in blindness. This graduate program would be her first foray into a full-time career. When she toured the facility, she was introduced to a team she would manage, about 20 people — all men.
She had a simple question. “Where is the women’s bathroom?” The manager hesitated. “Oh, you might have to share with the men,” he said.
That was 20 years ago. “Gender diversity was not something taken seriously,” Swinney said. “It was a real wake-up call as a young, female, engineering graduate thinking we can be anything, to the reality and prevailing social dynamics. Which in this case didn’t have anything to do with my different ability, but just being a woman in a completely male-dominated environment.”
That experience led Swinney to a career change. She subsequently made the selection for a management consultancy graduate program at a large Australian bank in London, where she found another male-dominated career. The previous discrimination and her different ability only fueled her desire to improve inclusion efforts. She wanted to work for companies that influenced big organizations — in the form of shareholder voting influence, in this case — to promote workforce and board diversity.
Swinney, 44, is now managing director, head of institutional sales, United Kingdom and Ireland for Principal Global Investors, the asset management arm of Principal Financial Group. She’s become the leader she dreamt she’d be, lifting others up and creating opportunities for all.
But that passion didn’t come easy.
It’s never a question of whether Swinney will encounter barriers because of her low vision — it’s about bridging them. “When you have a disability, you’re fearless every single day of your life,” she said. “There’s always a challenge.”
Her challenges run the gamut, from mobility issues to other people’s unconscious biases. During the pandemic, her work commute was a daily battle. Swinney couldn’t read the signs to navigate the London Underground. Asking people for directions was risky and thorny. “I can’t make eye contact, and the need to [socially distance] is difficult for people with vision impairment,” Swinney said. “So just going to work required fearlessness.”
And she faced plenty of fearless moments in her two-decade career in finance. Because her different ability is progressive and somewhat hidden, it’s hard to recognize that Swinney has low vision. She makes daily decisions about what to disclose and when. Once people become aware of her limited sight, she relies on allyship for support.
“In my days as a portfolio risk analyst,” Swinney said, “I had people questioning whether the numbers in a report I presented had the decimals in the right place. I was lucky to have an emphatic manager who stepped up and vouched for me. That was important.”
Despite these barriers, Swinney ascended the ranks, from analyst to business development to management. She became a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) charter holder, even though taking the exam was difficult because of her different ability, which required special accommodations. Pass rates were very tough for this professional qualification — in some years only 20% of candidates got through to the next level — and Swinney did fail. But she studied as much as she could in audio form and eventually passed all three levels and earned the designation. “That took a lot of resilience and perseverance, and incredible family support,” Swinney said.
For Swinney, she looks at her different ability as a motivator, not a drawback. And that’s been the key for her unending drive to break through roadblocks in her career.
“What energy would you have for life if you had no idea how long you’ll be able to work, or how long you’ll have the sight you have?” Swinney said. “That’s my perspective.”
Dreaming Big for Others
Swinney is an ally for others because she knows firsthand what allyship can mean. “Being an ally and investing in others is like sowing seeds of change that knows no boundaries. My story is really about the story of others. One incredible woman who grew up in a poor, rural community in Malaysia, with little educational opportunities, had to draw on what little resources she had when her firstborn’s vision prognosis became clear at a young age. The doctor said to her: “Prepare yourselves for a life of total dependency. She won’t amount to much.”
But because of a role model in her mother, who often had to dig deep in tough times with two children, plus determination and help from her peers, Swinney found success. She particularly remembers one small, but life-changing act of empathy in elementary school.
For years, the only accommodation for her diminishing sight was the incremental movement of her desk closer to the blackboard so she could read. Before long, Swinney was isolated from classmates, sitting five inches from the board. Everything changed the day a classmate asked the teacher, “Could I read out loud what’s on the board for Marilyn?”
“I didn’t even know the girl,” Swinney said. “Being stuck alone at the front of the room in a class of 45 was humiliating. That all changed because of her kindness — a girl who chose to be an ally not because she knew me but because she saw a problem and thought she could help solve it.”
Swinney has done the same for others, mentoring people with different abilities and helping them kickstart their careers. She worked with Blind in Business, a nonprofit that helps blind and partially-sighted graduates compete equally with sighted candidates for jobs.
At first, she could only focus on the graduates who didn’t get permanent jobs — “I took it as a personal failure,” Swinney said. It took a toll on her. So, she took a break for several years. That is, until she had her children. That pushed her desire forward, if anything to help create a brighter future for her three daughters, now 13, 11 and 8.
“[My children are] what made me really stand up,” Swinney said. “I’m just so grateful for every day I can work and I want to set an example for my girls. They understand why I work and give it so much energy, and they’re proud of me.
Swinney now volunteers with a handful of other organizations, like the Diversity Project, which champions a more diverse and inclusive culture within the savings and investment profession, and Ambitious About Autism, a charity that provides services, raises awareness and influence policy for Neurodiversity.
And at work, Swinney began seeking employers with aligned values. As she was researching Principal, she was impressed with how leadership encouraged team members to live authentically and spread the diversity message. Swinney works in business development, overseeing a team that creates financial partnerships across the globe.
“With three daughters, and I’m quite passionate about helping women so they can achieve financial independence,” Swinney said. “There’s a definite need for more awareness and education, even at a young age.”
Since joining Principal, Swinney has shared her message to the masses. She published an article earlier this year about neurodiversity in the workplace. Historically, Swinney said she hasn’t been as open about her different ability. But she wants to change that, to help others see a path to success. Swinney also believes encouraging allyship and sharing challenges “unites people.”
“Making a company feel like a welcome mat for people of all different talents and backgrounds — that is success to me,” Swinney said.
The University of Manchester is not an affiliate of any company of the Principal Financial Group.
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