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Heidi Johnston, managing director of Windowmakers – Professional Woman of the Year

Outstanding women working in the construction sector recognised – By Lynne Richardson

The Hays National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Excellence Awards were announced at the Auckland Town Hall on 17 August. NZ Construction News spoke to four of the outstanding winners to find out about their experiences in the construction industry and why they think diversity matters.

The annual Hays NAWIC Excellence Awards, now in their fourth year, honour the inspirational achievements women are making across New Zealand’s construction industry. With 50,000 more construction workers required within the next five years, it makes sense to encourage more women to work in construction and to highlight career paths available in this dynamic and fast-growing sector.

NAWIC president Jenny Parker says the awards are the highlight of the association’s year. “As I was standing on the stage with the awards winners, I felt so honoured to be among women who are breaking through the glass ceilings, reaching for their dreams and pushing the boundaries of the status quo,” she says.

“As I shook their hands and handed them flowers, I realised that we are setting the scene for the younger generation to aspire to. They are watching us very closely and next year I hope we get more nominations that shake up the industry even further. Women don’t put themselves forward for awards or recognition often enough, and I believe we need to lift our heads up right now and say ‘I am awesome’. We believe in you – make sure you keep including, respecting and inspiring yourself and the women around you.”

Heidi Johnston – Professional Woman of the Year

Heidi Johnston – winner of the Professional Woman of the Year Award – is the managing director of Windowmakers, an aluminium joinery company based in Silverdale, north of Auckland, which she has owned for 16 years. With two manufacturing facilities, her role involves setting the strategic direction of the business, building relationships and delivering value to the firm’s customers, while driving long-term sustainability.

“I am a great believer in grabbing the opportunities that are presented, and the older I get, the more I realise I have to learn,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be an architect as I have a passion for design and structural form. Many of my direct and extended family are business owners from whom I have learnt a lot. Everything came together when I met my husband who has supported me in following my dreams.”

While she holds no formal qualifications, Heidi has completed a lot of independent learning, including the Icehouse Owner Manager Programme, and she says that over the years her drivers for success have changed. “I have always been a ‘planner’ and get a lot of satisfaction from over-achieving the goals I set for myself and my business. My biggest driver is my people – enjoyment comes from coaching and supporting others to realise their own potential and gain confidence in themselves.”

She says she is tested every day as a woman working in the construction industry. “I’m often underestimated by my fellow fabricators, but I actually see this as a competitive advantage. As a woman, I think I bring an emotional intelligence and innovative approach to the table that others don’t have.” She hopes to use these skills and experience within the next five years by taking up board positions in other businesses.

Heidi currently has seven apprentices going through various aspects of training, and was nominated for the award by the BCITO, with whom she works very closely. “Winning this award was most unexpected, given the calibre of my fellow nominees,” she says. “However, for me it has been a great reminder that all the hard work is sometimes recognised by others, and not to take what I do for granted.”

She hopes the recognition of winning the award will encourage other women to enter the industry and offers the following advice: “Work harder than anyone else around you – the rewards come later. Love what you do and the passion will be recognised. Be kind to yourself, and seek support from likeminded people.”

Pip Buunk – Tradeswoman of the Year

When Pip Buunk arrives on a worksite, she raises more than a few eyebrows – she’s the drilling foreman for the drilling department at Fulton Hogan Civil South. Based in Christchurch, Pip says they work all over the country; she has recently spent time in Kaikoura, and is currently working on a project in Auckland.

Tradeswoman of the Year winner Pip Buunk

As the drilling foreman for the drilling department at Fulton Hogan Civil South, Pip Buunk can be sent to work all over the country

She has been in her current role at Fulton Hogan for just over a year. “My job includes everything from purchasing materials, consumables and drill gear, to client and engineer liaison, compiling quality assurance packages, and the actual drilling and grouting onsite.”

She says it’s a role she was born into. “My parents had their own drilling company and I always wanted to be ‘just like my dad’, so after I left school, that was the career I pursued. I’ve recently completed an RCC [recognition of current competence] programme through MITO which gives me the Level 4 certificate in non-hydrocarbon drilling. My units covered mud rotary, cable tool, downhole hammer, grouting and monitoring bore installation. I also have my truck licence which comes in handy when work is slow.”

Fulton Hogan is a supportive employer, she adds. “In the past, I’ve been put in a box, so to speak, and expected to stay there, but my boss here just says, ‘Well, if you can do it, go for it, and if you need a hand, you know where I am,’ which has been quite a liberating experience. It’s been great to be able to put my skills learned throughout the years into practice.”

Pip says being a woman working in the construction industry has sometimes been tough. “There are definitely still issues with bullying and harassment – not as bad as they were 15 years ago when I first entered the industry – but it is still unfortunately something that exists, and many employers either refuse to see it, or plain don’t know how to deal with it,” she asserts.

She was nominated for the NAWIC award by her manager and regional managers, and says it was great to have her experience and achievements recognised in such an awesome way.

Pip also has some inspirational plans for the next five years: “I hope to continue growing the drilling department and hopefully bring on a female or two to train up – how amazing would it be to have an all-female drill team! – and work on bringing more awareness to trades for women and young people, but also help make construction an even better, safer and more supportive industry to work in,” she says.

“Diversity is so important in our industry. Men and women tend to see things from different perspectives, and it can be beneficial to have people who focus on the big picture, as well as on the details – as women tend to do a bit more. Having different viewpoints from different backgrounds and experiences is always a winner when you’re problem-solving or throwing ideas around.”

Would she encourage young women to consider a career in the construction industry? “Absolutely. Don’t be scared. If it interests you, ask questions, seek training, and go for it! Never be discouraged that a company or specific career path turns out to be not quite the right fit – try again until you find the perfect match for you.”

Gabrielle Bush – Helen Tippett Award

The Helen Tippett Award celebrates achievement in advancing the interests of women in the construction industry, and Gabrielle (Gabby) Bush certainly hits the mark. Currently on maternity leave, Gabby is a civil project engineer for CPB Contractors working on the Transmission Gully project.

Helen Tippett Award winner Gabby Bush

“Prior to taking leave, I was responsible for a range of different technical components of the project, as I had the opportunity to work in different teams over the last three years, these mainly being site establishment, earthworks, keystone block MSE [mechanically stabilised earth] walls and landscaping,” she says.

“In general, a project engineer’s role involves executing the works. This includes planning the works, creating a financial forecast, setting a programme to meet a deadline, ordering materials, coordinating subcontractors, ensuring construction meets the design standards and specifications, monitoring productivity, managing the costs, executing contracts, ensuring the safety procedures are being followed, and following stringent environmental guidelines. All of this must be done while working as a team with fellow engineers and site supervisory staff.”

While at high school, Gabby excelled in maths and science, so this, coupled with a love of solving problems, made engineering a natural choice for a career, and she completed a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil Engineering) with honours from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne in 2008. “I love working in the construction management side of civil engineering. I enjoy being out on a site, working in teams, and seeing my work turn into the built environment – it’s a physical legacy of our efforts,” she says.

“Working on such a large project as Transmission Gully means that there are many milestones that need to be achieved to get to the end result – things like hitting the first million cubic metres of earth moved, placing the first 500 sq m of keystone block wall and planting the first trees,” she adds. “Getting to these milestones gives the whole project team a sense of achievement.”

Being a woman in the construction industry has had its downsides though, and Gabby says she has experienced harassment in the past, which fortunately she was able to resolve. “Given the strength of the #MeToo movement, it is not surprising that I had this experience. All my female colleagues can tell you of an experience of their own. What is disappointing – and what I think is holding women back the most – is the ‘old boys club’ that exists in our construction industry. It is harder for women to form relationships with the ‘right’ people – hiring managers, senior members of the leadership team, executives etc. It is difficult to be seen to be ready for promotion if you are not spruiking your latest achievements or problem-solving at the pub with the boss. I’ve found that lots of people will help you solve an immediate problem, but it is more challenging to forge a lasting professional relationship which could grow into a mentorship, and I feel that this has been far less difficult for my male counterparts to achieve.”

Gabby also thinks her choice to start a family will mean she will miss the opportunity for promotion. “I believe I could have advanced to the next level of my career within six months of taking maternity leave. Should I choose to go back to work full-time after my maternity leave, I think I could get back on track for a promotion to senior project engineer in a reasonable time. However, my priorities have changed and I don’t want to commit to the hours required of my current role, let alone the next step up, so I don’t see myself making it to senior project engineer any time in the next decade.”

She was nominated for the NAWIC award by her manager, Jessica Jenkins, and says winning the Helen Tippet Award is very special. “It’s good to think that something I have done has had a positive impact on many other women. Although I worked hard to be where I am, I also feel very privileged to be here. I feel that it is my duty and an honour to do all that I can to help other women in the industry. Winning the award gives me a platform to share my experiences and help promote the wonderful work other women in the industry are doing. Women in the construction industry are not unusual, but we are not the norm just yet, especially in the top jobs,” she notes.

“I hope I can continue to be proactive in helping achieve a gender balance in the industry over the years to come. Diversity in general matters a lot – it ensures innovation and project success. Having a broad range of people who have different life experiences because of their gender, age, cultural background, skill levels and ways of thinking is essential for effective 
problem-solving and working innovatively. Diversity is crucial for making the construction industry as successful as possible, because that is how we will continue to come up with new and better ways to construct our built environment.”

Gabby would like to see more young women entering the industry. “There are so many brilliant things to build and wonderful opportunities to be taken. Keep trying new things until you find the job that fits best, then try something different when you no longer feel challenged. The possibilities are endless in the construction industry. Just do it!”

Elisapeta Heta – Rising Star Award

Elisapeta Heta is an architectural graduate with Jasmax in Auckland, but holds the dual title of kaihautu whaihanga [Maori design leader] within Waka Maia, Jasmax’s Maori cultural navigation team.

Her work mostly covers the Tamaki region, but she has also worked as far north as the Hokianga, in Hamilton and Tauranga, and as far south as Blenheim. More recently, she has been involved with the NZ Pavilion project for the World Expo in 2020 in Dubai.

Rising Star Award winner Elisapeta Heta

“My role as an architectural graduate is varied and always interesting. It’s hard to pin down – no day is the same. It all depends on the project, the process and the team,” she says. “My role as kaihautu whaihanga is quite different to the usual graduate work – lots of business development, strategy and pitching for work. As well as working with our office and colleagues to support and uplift further education of Te Ao Maori [the Maori world], the goal is to generally and genuinely enable a higher cultural capacity within our office. We work quite a lot at facilitating tangata whenua engagement processes within projects across the country and more recently overseas. It’s a really wonderful diverse role and quite a gear shift from being a graduate.”

She says her career path is still developing. “The space we are carving out – this intertwined duality of roles – is an evolutionary process. It’s combining the old with the new, both from a ‘traditional’ architectural career route and the newer innovative approaches to Maori design.” She credits “a wonderful graphics teacher in my fourth form” who started the idea of her becoming an architect, and she has since attained a Bachelor of Architectural Studies and a Master of Architecture (Professional), along with a Master of Literature (Museums and Cultural Heritage), all from the University of Auckland.

Elisapeta says there has absolutely been no downside to being a Maori/Pasifika woman in the construction industry, but she has experienced unfair ‘isms’ as a result of people’s unconscious bias. “There are difficult things in the industry that need to change that will enable our work experiences to be more enriched and fulfilling, and to unleash even more of our potential. In this day and age where Trumps are being voted into positions of power, and women everywhere still need to check all the dark spots on their walk home at night, reality is what it is.

“But that’s not where I focus my energy. Let’s eliminate the wage gap for Maori and Pasifika. Let’s make sure we’re not solely responsible for educating everyone on cultural safety and empathy. Let’s make sure flexibility for care work is supported, and flexible workers valued. Let’s make sure the education system and workforce is diverse, and teaches histories beyond the westernised colonialist’s lens. These aren’t negatives or downsides, they’re facts that can shift. We’re still going to own our day jobs in the meantime, and be amazing at that.”

Elisapeta was nominated for the award by the team in her office. “I was humbled and honoured to be acknowledged in this way – it was well beyond my expectations,” she says. “Equally it makes me proud of the work I have been able to achieve, with the many I stand by to achieve it.”

She says diversity of all types matters: “Diversity of thought, response, articulation, strategy, design – it’s all ultimately better for the public good. Simply, if we have more diverse design teams, we have more holistically considered design outcomes.”

She has thoughtful advice for a young woman considering a career in the construction industry. “Be passionate – unapologetically so. Dig deep into your identity, your history, yourself. Let go of all the things that hold you back and push forward with confidence. If you are generous and kind to yourself and others, relentlessly thoughtful, strong and curious, and can have fun, then you’ll go a long way. Don’t be so serious, but definitely don’t be afraid to run as fast as you can, and rest deeply.”

Lynne Richardson is the editor of New Zealand Construction News and FTD - Supply Chain Management Magazine



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