The WA women rocking a hard hat and building our city

The West Australian
From left: Eileen Wong, senior planner at Built; Jean Did, administrator at Multiplex; Prudence Major, graduate architect at Hassell; Kelly Dyball, development manager at Brookfield Properties; Vicki Bilro, site engineer at Multiplex; Kati Meijer, assistant development manager at Brookfield Properties; Natalie Busan, aandscape architect at Hassell; Natalia Royss, construction planner at Multiplex; Helen Ciaes, project engineer at Multiplex; Kim McGrath, interior designer at Hassell; Heidi Sowerbutts, project manager at Built; and Stefanie Sugiarto, senior project engineer at Built.
From left: Eileen Wong, senior planner at Built; Jean Did, administrator at Multiplex; Prudence Major, graduate architect at Hassell; Kelly Dyball, development manager at Brookfield Properties; Vicki Bilro, site engineer at Multiplex; Kati Meijer, assistant development manager at Brookfield Properties; Natalie Busan, aandscape architect at Hassell; Natalia Royss, construction planner at Multiplex; Helen Ciaes, project engineer at Multiplex; Kim McGrath, interior designer at Hassell; Heidi Sowerbutts, project manager at Built; and Stefanie Sugiarto, senior project engineer at Built. Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

There is no better time for women to don a hard hat and enter WA’s construction industry, according to experts who are predicting the coronavirus pandemic will spark a jobs boom.

As of May this year, women made up only 12 per cent of WA’s construction industry and 1.5 per cent of trade-related positions, according to Master Builders Association statistics.

At One The Esplanade, being developed by Brookfield Properties and Multiplex, women hold key roles as site engineers, designers and project managers.

But project manager Heidi Sowerbutts said some of the barriers preventing more women from entering the construction industry included long hours and working conditions.

She said the last time Perth was coming into a construction boom about a decade ago, “it was a different market in terms of things like HR policies in companies”.

“There’s been a significant shift in construction companies, particularly getting policies more akin to the rest of the working world,” Ms Sowerbutts said.

“The companies are offering more opportunities now, so it would be a different workplace that people would be entering into now, compared to the last time this (a construction boom) happened.”

National Association of Women in Construction WA president Natalie Busch said the organisation was hoping to address the lack of female role models in the industry.

“Women are not great at saying, ‘I’m doing a really good job at this’. They tend to get on with it and do it, they don’t really shout about it,” she said.

“We’re really committed to a mentoring program that helps equip people and change their mindset and what we found is that there are women doing awesome things — they just need to be given a little bit of confidence.”

General manager of Inspired Homes, Paula West.
General manager of Inspired Homes, Paula West. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Paula West, general manager of Inspired Homes and an MBA board member, said opportunities for women to get into the building and construction industry had never been better.

“Many women have been affected by COVID, especially in industries like retail, hospitality and tourism,” she said.

“Now is a great opportunity for women to look at the building and construction industry and bring their talents into an industry seeking diversity.”

Ms West said skills shortages appeared because of a construction downturn in the past few years.

“We’ve lost a lot of good, skilled labour to other industries, so either bringing them back or getting new talent is certainly a high priority for the industry to be able to cater for the amount of workflow in the pipeline that is going to be coming through,” she said.

A list of big-ticket WA infrastructure projects — several of which are set to be fast-tracked including the Bunbury Outer Ring Road and the Tonkin Gap Project — will create more than 20,000 jobs during construction.

Activity in the civil construction sector is also expected to increase on the back of housing stimulus packages introduced by both State and Federal governments in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The companies are offering more opportunities now, so it would be a different workplace that people would be entering into now, compared to the last time this (a construction boom) happened.

Heidi Sowerbutts

Ms West, who has worked in all areas in construction, said while getting diversity in the building construction industry had been a major focus over the years it had proven challenging in the downturn.

She said the construction industry was not all about men and high-vis trades.

“There are the electrical, carpentry, cabinetry and tiling trades — I’ve seen some women doing some amazing things in those areas, and the precision and the eye for detail is very, very different,” she said. “They’re skills and qualities the industry would really applaud.

“For anyone looking to get started, the first thing they need to do is look for opportunities within the industry. There’s a training ground out in Belmont called the Construction Training Fund that has hands on activities.”