Jennifer Marks / Director of Strategy / Built  / 
Construction’s Not a Career, It’s a Lifestyle.

story / Interview / October 23, 2021

Well I guess I wasn’t one of those people who knew what I wanted to do when I grew up – and I’d still probably say the same thing! The one thing I knew was that I wanted to go to university, so with strengths in maths & science, I found myself in engineering.

I studied civil engineering and business at RMIT.  There were scholarships offered by Abigroup Contractors to cover the final year of studies while working, and I jumped at the chance for the financial benefit more than anything else. But then I found myself working for a contractor in civil construction and actually enjoyed it.

I called the early years of my career the identity crisis years – I just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want people to notice that I was a girl. Not that I was consciously doing it at the time, but I cut my hair short, I wore hard yakkas, I dressed like all the other blokes on site. I really modified my behaviour to blend in. It kind of created a double life between working in construction and how I was outside of work.  After a few years I started to explore that – why am I in construction? Is it really what I want to do? And I was a bit disheartened by the linear career progression and the predefined time frames for advancing & ‘earning your stripes’.

I was in my late twenties at this point and my father passed away suddenly. It was just one of those moments where you stop & think ‘…is this really all my life is? So predictable and laid out in front of me?’  It was enough of a catalyst to take a bit of a break from construction.  I moved into project management in IT – web design.  It was so much fun – it was during the boom of the internet in the early 2000s and I loved it, but it was short lived.  The company I worked for went bust about a year after joining.

The time away actually made me miss construction, but figured out I wanted to work further up the food chain and work with a developer. I started a Masters in Finance so I could understand that and through contacts got a job interview with Australand, which is now Frasers Property. That was a turning point in my career where I started to explore the business of construction.  I was single, with no commitments, so I traveled for work – living in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.  I was with them for nearly 10 years until I first went on maternity leave.

When we moved back to Melbourne I joined Built in a New Business role.  The demands of working in New Business are out of control. I fully understand & appreciate the stress working on projects, but it’s one singular organism, with a reasonably predictable pattern of pressure. Working in new business you’re across multiple things at once and they are all at different stages.  Then if a client wants something tomorrow and you might get a job out of it, you work all night to deliver it. I didn’t know if I could do it when I started and was surprised when we had a few wins. I guess I could relate to people, understand their needs along with knowing how to deliver projects, combined with a large industry network.  It’s been 10 years with Built and I’m transitioning into a new National role, working with the senior execs and the board to disseminate the business strategy across the whole company.

The change that I’ve noticed this year is that people really want to know – What is social procurement? How do we create diversity? I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, but I feel like it’s the first time I actually have a voice.  People are really listening. They finally want to change. There’s a genuine effort to work out what the solution is. It’s really exciting. And daunting at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I have the weight of every female in the construction industry on my shoulders. Like I’m under the spotlight and if I mess up, they will judge all women for my mistakes.

A fair amount of the diversity shift is being driven by Clients – in particular the Victorian government. Their intent of getting ‘Gender on the Tender’ and pushing for targets is definitely driving change. There is an impetus for it now. A reason to have to do something about it. In some ways it’s sad that it takes that, but I also think – whatever it takes, you know? As long as the outcome is greater equality and diversity in construction. Fortunately for us our managing director and our Board are fully committed to make the shift and respond to the client demands.

I often get told I’m too intense or even aggressive. I’ve had that a bit throughout my career.  I’m definitely passionate & determined and it’s interesting how that get’s translated for women compared to men who behave similarly.  One topic I’m really passionate about is gender equality, for diversity and inclusion and the broader social benefits. With the recent industry and social momentum, I have been jumping on the bandwagon big time. I was told recently to ‘slow up a bit, you’re scaring people’. I know that raising gender issues can make people feel uncomfortable, but in a way it’s positive that they feel uneasy. If they feel uncomfortable, they may question why they feel that way and hopefully realise what they have been doing unconsciously for so long. And maybe they’ll change.

Since being in a senior management roles, I’ve cherished the opportunities to influence decisions.  It makes such a difference to have a female voice or perspective when making decisions about rem, promotion or recruitment.  It’s interesting to hear the bias and judgement about whether women fit the construction mold, or questioning whether she knows what’s she’s getting into, or whether she can be on site at 7 am every morning.  A colleague once said to me, if you’ve been working in construction for over 20 years – you’re in it for life.  I often say that construction’s not a career, it’s a lifestyle.

The hours we work are crazy and we try to manage flexibility, but there is also a hell of a lot of reward that comes with our job as well. We must be one of the most social industries in how we work and how business is done. Even the fact that we work in teams on projects. When I went through a phase of wondering whether to stay in the construction industry – the teams are what drew me back. That teamwork. That collaboration. I’m even getting goosebumps saying it, which is bizarre, but it’s the people focus and the variety of people that you get to work with to create cool buildings. It’s amazing.

I used to get really angry about inequality and I fought for years to prove that women and men were the same.  It was a real shock when we had a child and I saw how my husband responded and coped and it hit me – we were actually different.  It was a real shock for me and at first I didn’t know what to do with this discovery.  I felt like I grew up a bit.  It wasn’t really about what he did or didn’t do, mostly it was surprise about what I could do and deal with.  Either way, for me, there were some differences, and that was OK.   Accepting the shift allowed me to be who I am.   It was a huge professional shift as well.  I felt comfortable for the first time accepting and embracing my feminine side and I could appreciate and value the differences that I bring.  Treating it as a benefit rather than denying its existence.

I’ve got eight years between my girls and both of them were a surprise. With my first child, we traveled around Australia when she was one, and then got back to Melbourne in time to start working at Built. We managed care with a combination of childcare and nannies, and after a couple of years, we got our first au pair.  When the little one came along she fitted into that cycle as well and we had au-pairs right up until COVID. I stayed home a little longer with the younger one, as I was so blown away with the blessing of her existence. She was seven months old when I went back and I spent the next 5 months regretting that I didn’t take a year off. Now we have a nanny for the youngest and she is at childcare two days a week.

Women in the industry in my era were more ‘survivors and fighters’, when you went into the lion’s cage, it was ‘well, you went in there…’. We have had to fight for most things. I was conforming to the industry, not changing the industry. It’s only been recent years where I’ve felt I can influence a change. The young women that are coming through now are unapologetically challenging and I actually learn more from seeing their behaviour and creating that awareness of what I accepted as the norm.

I wish I had the advice that it was okay to be a girl. And to reassure me that the skills and values that I bring may be different to others, but are highly valued. Whereas I think early on in my career it was subconsciously felt that the female part of me was not valued. Females who are entering the industry now are a lot more diverse – there’s not that one type of female. They are a lot more open to speaking up and being clear about what they will accept.

I always tell my children, or at least my 11 year old, to get the right foundations of education so that you have the option of choices later. It’s fine if you want to be a singer, but give yourself the foundations to be able to choose many other things too. That way you always have something to fall back on and you have choice.

 

We’ve known Jen for a long time, but never quite got the timing right to sort out an interview and in a way we’re kind of glad we didn’t do it earlier…(as strange as that sounds), because Jen has grown into someone who has become well-known for her efforts in advocating for greater diversity and her new role as Director of Strategy is something that should be celebrated – which we are excited to do here on the blog! Having women in positions of strategy, advocacy, and decision-making has been shown to change the balance that attracts women and retains women within an industry. It was so great to sit down with Jen and her story (albeit over Teams due to lockdown). Jen is bright, engaging and funny and she is not afraid to call a spade a spade. We wish Jen all the best in her new role and thank her for her years of support for us and GAZELLA. J & D x

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