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International Women in Engineering Day

23 June 2018. A day that sees women from Saudi Arabia granted the right to drive a car in their country for the very first time. It’s also a day dedicated to celebrating women in engineering. Last Saturday was International Women in Engineering Day and although it’s truly wonderful to see the last female driving ban in the world lifted – it’s also incredibly inspiring to have a day dedicated to getting real about women in engineering and construction and raising the profile of women in engineering.

As a company, Civilex has intentionally created, nurtured and maintained a welcoming, high-performance culture integrating family values with professional engagement and results. Civilex aims to not only attract more women into the civil construction and engineering space but also actively looks at how best to keep its people – both women and men – in traditionally demanding roles.

Civilex, along with Victoria’s chief engineer Collette Burke, aims to interrupt the current low levels of female representation and lift the bar in the engineering and construction profession and address the underlying barriers that prevent both women and men stepping up into more senior roles within the industry.

Featured in The Age Victoria’s chief engineer Collette Burke shares her views. The article also reveals the startling state of play: just 13.6% of engineers in Australia are women (Census data 2016). And that figure is up from 10.6% a decade earlier. Realistically the statistics are probably lower in the construction arena.

I recently sat down with one of Civilex’s senior managers – Jen Robertson – in her role as Construction Manager and asked her to share her experiences in the civil construction and engineering industry, the advice she would give women wanting to enter the industry, and hopes she holds now and for the future.

Jen’s Background
Jen studied Civil Engineering at the University of Melbourne and worked in the construction field during her 20s. “I really enjoyed being involved in the physical construction side of projects rather than in an office environment when I first started out.” It was in her late 20s and early 30s that Jen started looking at different roles in the construction industry, moving away from the onsite management responsibilities. “Women often look too far ahead into the future. I did – focussing on the traditional 12-hour days 6 days a week workload and realising that just wasn’t possible if I had a family. So I started looking for other opportunities with the company and elsewhere.”

The engineering and construction industry has customarily been known to have overworked and burnt out employees living by the traditionally held view you need to work one zillion hours to get the job done. But if we are to take anything away from Jen’s message it is: it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a new way forward.

Citing the book by technology executive Sheryl Sandberg Lean In, Jen says, “it’s so important to play full out today and not needlessly worry about how tomorrow or in 10 years’ time looks. Worry about tomorrow then, not now.”

Jen’s Construction Journey
Jen has worked with three companies since she graduated from university. Previously at Leighton Contractors (now CBP) for 13 years and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) for two years, and since October 2017 she has been part of the Civilex family.

“When I worked with Leighton Contractors there was not one female Project Manager in Victoria. I remember having to travel across the country to Kalgoorlie in the West Australian mines to physically see and talk with a female Project Manager for Leighton. That’s the extent of effort we had to make back then.”

In between having two children, Jen has continued working the industry, albeit with some adjustments. “I decided to jump into a Senior Project Engineer role, then I fell pregnant and took maternity leave. Ten months into my mat leave I decided to return to work and together with my manager who was also looking for a change, we negotiated a job-share arrangement for the Project Manager role on a $120 million project. I worked three days a week in Leighton’s first job-shared PM role.” The naysayers said it couldn’t be done but they were proved wrong.

Following the birth of her second child, Jen again took on a part-time (three day) Project Manager role. “It was extremely rare in the industry. But just because it’s wasn’t traditionally done didn’t mean it couldn’t.”

Day to Day Construction Activities
The day to day activities for a Civil Construction Manager provides the opportunity to see the business from a holistic vantage point. A broad view of the business. “We are presently involved in a range of large and diverse civil projects located across Victoria, and we’re working alongside a wide variety of clients. But on the whole my experience and construction expertise are used in the development of my team – there are numerous and varied informal opportunities to mentor and train.”

The nuts and bolts of the day to day activities of a Construction Manager encompasses resourcing and developing the construction team, commercial oversight, strategic planning and managing client relationships. Jen says, “It’s actually more about people and less about construction.”

It’s Your Life: Request Flexibility
Like many working mothers, Jen works full time in her Construction Manager role at Civilex, balancing her other roles as partner and mum of a young family by requesting flexible work arrangements. “My advice to anyone seeking flexibility is to be upfront with what you need and want. And that advice is not limited to just females. So many men ask “how did you get that flexibility?” My response: just ask. I think men too should take on this approach and make their working arrangements properly fit them.”

Values Underpin Everything We Do
Civilex’s company values – Safety, Respect, Wellbeing, Relationships, Culture and Innovation – play an integral role in shaping the company and its employee culture. Values assist Civilex in realising its vision of being the preferred civil construction partner for our clients and being the benchmark for how others are measured. As a Construction Manager, Jen says, “Values are everything. Our values are how we operate and engage in our projects and with people.”

Best Advice
Jen’s advice to women wanting to make a start or continue their career in the civil construction and engineering industry without burnout is simple: “You can do it. You can have meaningful and more senior roles – with flexibility – because I’ve done it!” Jen values the opportunity to network with other women within the industry. She says actively seeking out women in positions of leadership to talk to and garner advice or mentorship from evokes a sense of inspiration and is vital to success. In fact, Collette Burke has been inspiring her for over a decade, as a real life and local example of how women can succeed in the industry.

Civilex too values the importance of that network and wants to cultivate it further. As such Civilex has joined the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) this year, an association Jen is absolutely thrilled about.

On the Horizon
NAWIC is an Australian not for profit organisation formed in 1995 whose mission is to champion and empower women in construction-related industries to reach their full potential. The association offers members an opportunity to expand personal and business networks, maintain awareness of industry developments, improve skills and knowledge, and make a contribution to other women in the construction industry.

The NAWIC association is a positive step forward for women working at Civilex currently and into the future. The benefits are enormous. “Firstly, there’s a huge amount of support and encouragement for women in our business with plenty of networking events to attend. Secondly, becoming a member and attending NAWIC functions with our male colleagues will help better educate and inform the great men we work alongside the real challenges women face in our industry.”

And this hopefully brings about more open conversations and actions within the workplace and within our teams about more women coming into the engineering and construction profession and happily remaining.

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