Leaders in construction

March is the month that marks International Women’s Day. To mark the occasion, Kathryn Kernohan spoke to four leaders in the construction industry.

The construction industry - inclusive of the plumbing industry - is one of Australia’s largest in terms of employment and its significant contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (about 9%).

Like many industries, the construction industry remains male dominated. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics’ most recent Gender Indicators report, just 12.7% of employees in the industry are women. Various reports show the percentage of women who work as tradespeople at one or two per cent.

Additionally, in 2019-20 the construction industry had a higher proportion of male workers aged 20 to 74 than any other industry.

My advice to young women is to be courageous, pursue your dreams and believe in yourself. Seize opportunities when they arise, give things a go and ask lots of questions. But most of all, work hard at what you want to achieve and never give up.

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Leaders in construction

There is reason to hope the gender imbalance will shift. And governments are investing to support it. In Victoria, the Building Gender Equality: Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy 2019-2022 aims to increase female participation in trades.

Master Plumbers provided a submission to the strategy, as a member of the Building Industry Consultative Council (BICC). CEO Peter Daly says: “the only way to achieve a real step change towards better gender-equality outcomes in construction is for us to take an industry-wide approach between employer associations, unions, employers and employees.”

Research by Charles Sturt University found that in regional NSW, there was success in programs, including mentoring, networking and all-female teams.

To celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8), Australian Plumbing Magazine spoke to four women involved in Australia’s construction and plumbing industry - from those in leadership positions to those on the tools - about their journeys in the industry and why they encourage other women to follow their leads.

Marnie Williams – Energy Safe Victoria

Marnie Williams started her job as Director of Energy Safe Victoria, the state’s safety regulator for electricity, gas and pipelines, in late March 2020.

The very next day, the entire workplace went into lockdown as the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to work remotely.

“It was a big challenge to work out how to both establish relationships, as well lead the organisation, remotely. Ultimately, we were able to land in a good place and our people did remarkably well,” she says.

Energy Safe Victoria enforces energy safe regulations to keep Victorians safe through a wide variety of technical, safety and educational activities targeted at energy companies, tradespeople, and the broader community.

COVID-19 provided an opportunity to do some things differently, like during the ‘Be Sure’ campaign which highlights the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and encourages the regular servicing of open-flued gas heaters.

“We had to go digital with the campaign because we couldn’t run the face-to-face events - instead, we held a number of webinars in partnership with the Master Plumbers and Victorian Building Authority for tradies which had significant take up.”

On January 1, 2021, Energy Safe Victoria became a three-person commission administered by Victoria’s Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change.

Marnie is chairperson of three members of the all-female commission.

“When it was looking like the whole commission would be female, I actually had to ask people ‘is this OK?’,” she says with a laugh.

“They really are the right people for the job and fit the specific qualifications we need, and we had many strong candidates. I am chuffed with how it worked out, though.”

Marnie, who in her spare time is a “crazy gardener with hundreds of roses to keep me occupied,” says her main piece of advice to young women with leadership aspirations is to be proactive.

“Utilise diagnostic tools to better understand your own strengths, let people know your ambitions and goals and find a mentor to get advice from.”

Kimberley Smyth – Hey Sista Plumbing

Kimberley Smyth was a mother of two, working as a machine operator for a newspaper, when she started to harbour a desire to follow in her husband’s footsteps and become a plumber.

“Family and friends laughed at the idea and I lacked the confidence in my early 20s to say I could do it. I didn’t start my mature-age apprenticeship until eight years later. I had four children by then but I had confidence not to listen to any negative opinions,” she says.

“I wanted a career that could give my children the life I didn’t have growing up.”

There were some challenging times during her days at trade school, but positive mentors made Kimberley sure she was on the right path.

“At times I felt like I didn’t belong and it did feel isolating, but I’d talk to people I trusted including TAFE teachers and they would push me to keep going and not give up. In saying that, the positive people for women in plumbing outnumber the negative ones I’ve found over the years.”

In 2012, she founded Melbourne-based Hey Sista Plumbing to support predominately female clients. The business does everything from “maintenance to new builds.”

“My clients know there’s no question too silly and I’m happy to explain anything in a way they understand. It’s important to me while supplying a service I can show my clients that a plumbing career can and should be offered to women who want the opportunity.

“I love it when clients call their young daughter in to watch me work - it opens up great conversations about our daughters and sons and how they should have the opportunity to be happy in their chosen career.”

Kimberley also provides reduced rate services to women who have experienced domestic violence.

“Seeing a female plumber working for herself gives them hope for the future during a difficult time, while also removing the anxiety of having an unknown tradesman attend the property.”

Renee Shankar – ODM Plumbing

After 15 years in government public relations roles, Renee Shankar decided it was time for a change.

“Two years ago I made the decision to leave my job to spend more time with our family. Around the same time, my husband Owen was looking for consultancy advice to help with the future direction of ODM Plumbing,” she says.

“Given my background in public relations and strategic planning, I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. That was in 2019, and I have not looked back since.”

Owen founded ODM Plumbing in 2005. The business specialises in commercial plumbing, primarily Government-funded projects such as schools, aged care, retail and sports projects.

“I initially came on board to update our business plan and implement a range of changes to help streamline operations. Now, I generally focus on contract management and tender bid preparation.”

2020 provided a range of challenges due to COVID-19, but as Renee says, it was also a year of opportunity.

“We adapted and diversified our business model to include contract maintenance services. As a result, we were recently awarded a three-year contract to provide maintenance services to a local council,” she says.

Learning more about the plumbing industry has been one of the most rewarding parts of Renee’s career change - and she is also a strong advocate for the contribution women make to the industry “from administration roles to being on the tools”.

“Our office manager, for example, is as critical to our operations as the plumbers we have working on site,” she says.

“At an industry level, it would be good to see gender diversity reflected and promoted in strategic goals, boards and at leadership levels.”

And advice for women considering entering the industry?

“Plumbing is a key essential service, from providing clean drinking water, heating and cooling to keeping our cities hygienic and flood free. There is so much variety of work.

“The industry can only benefit from your talents - so why not get involved?”

Sue Eddy – Victorian Building Authority

Sue Eddy is passionate about supporting more women to take on leadership roles, and the CEO of Victorian Building Authority (VBA) is proud her organisation practices what it preaches.

“We’re headed by a female CEO and female Chief Commissioner. 50 per cent of our executive leadership team and seven of our 10 Commissioners are female,” she says.

“The VBA is filled with many outstanding women who contribute to the success of the organisation and help us keep the plumbing and building industry operating.”

The VBA regulates building and plumbing practitioners across Victoria, to ensure building and plumbing industries are efficient and competitive.

“In the last few years, we’ve transformed the VBA into an agency that works closely with industry and practitioners to help them do their job and that supports consumers when things go wrong,” explains Sue.

“We’ve overseen the state’s response to combustible cladding, which remains at the forefront of global best practice. I’m proud of the progress we have made in competency, education and enforcement.”

Sue, who was appointed CEO of the VBA in late 2017 after previously working in the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources and the Department of Treasury and Finance, also takes pride in the way the organisation and the broader industry responded to COVID-19.

“When coronavirus hit, we worked with stakeholders to create guidelines that meant industry could remain open. It’s a real testament to what can be achieved when industry, government, unions and practitioners all work together for the good of our community.”

“Looking forward to 2021 and beyond, I am positive that the building and plumbing industry can continue to grow and contribute significantly to the recovery of the Victorian economy.”

That growth includes greater gender diversity - with Sue saying it is incumbent on the industry to do everything possible to attract and retain women.

“My advice to young women is to be courageous, pursue your dreams and believe in yourself. Seize opportunities when they arise, give things a go and ask lots of questions. But most of all, work hard at what you want to achieve and never give up.”

Master Plumbers has established a new advisory committee led by National Council, dedicated to advancing gender diversity in the industry. The committee comprises David McCarthy, Daniel Smolenaars, Phill Craig and Christopher Unwin.

“The benefits of greater diversity in our industry are clear and our focus is on identifying ways we can collectively attract, recruit and retain more women in plumbing.“ says Christopher, who convenes the committee.

If you would like to share your ideas and experiences, please contact the Committee via [email protected] or call 9329 9622.

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My advice to young women is to be courageous, pursue your dreams and believe in yourself. Seize opportunities when they arise, give things a go and ask lots of questions. But most of all, work hard at what you want to achieve and never give up.

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