Joanne Farrell / General Manager – ACT / Kane  / 
Prove Them Wrong

story / Interview / June 14, 2021

Construction is not as easy as it looks, you do not get a participation award. We need to make changes, but it is a hard gig regardless of where you are in construction. For young people, be clear on your expectations for the role and industry. Explore your options, the roles and opportunities, and don’t get stuck in a path you don’t enjoy. Find yourself good mentors and networks. There are huge opportunities if you are willing to put in the hard yards. We have all wanted to quit at some point.

I started my journey as an apprentice carpenter in Wollongong in 1996. Unsurprisingly for the time, it was not the typical path for young women. I had constant rejections and it wasn’t until I had annoyed someone enough with the offer of free work that I finally landed a role. I wore away at this boss and completed my apprenticeship, but that business fell apart. I was again lost for work when I departed for Sydney, working my way through commercial construction as a façade installer, and then an Operations Manager for a structural steel company for 10 years. I also managed to complete my Cert IV, Advanced Building Diploma and Construction Management degree. I was all work, no play, which was the driving force for the Europe move.

Through contacts, I landed a role at a nuclear decommissioning plant in Lithuania. My initial response to the offer was that it must have been a joke! After a quick Google, I was on my way. I was there for three years, learning enough Russian to get by on site and know when they were talking smack. I took a year-long career break on route home, travelling the slow way. I have been in Canberra for seven years since, and Kane for the last year.

A significant number of men were interviewed for the GM role at Kane; I was the only woman. Myself and my predecessor are chalk and cheese, I was the change the company needed and I saw it as a huge challenge. Right off the bat, COVID-19 hit, which essentially means I took over running a branch in a pandemic. I was leading the ship in uncharted waters, with uncertainty, pipeline project losses, potential stand downs and cultural and reputation issues after a period of upheaval in previous years.

On day one I went around to every project, only one of them had a female bathroom. The majority had unisex, which was apparently not an issue to the site team. Raising my concerns and sharing personal experience with harassment, they were unswayed. From announcing I was entering the urinal, setting off a barrel of laughter. To the amount of unsolicited genitalia, I have seen, not to mention the more sinister side of people peeking through gaps in the door. The safety risks are simply unacceptable! The response to this was to complain to the male Managing Directors about me. One individual went as far to say ‘there was no way I will have a female boss’ so we parted ways with a few people. Many thought the same and didn’t outwardly say it and would look to sabotage the growth and shift in culture in other ways.

Evidently, I had walked straight into a cultural black hole. I instantly knew I would need to roll my shirt sleeves up and get stuck into it. Many have been judgmental of us hiring women, especially in roles they may not have been typically trained in. But we can see they will be excellent with the opportunities and right support. Recently at an event, a person remarked ‘so do I need a sex change to work at Kane now,’ which got many laughs. But I simply responded, ‘no you simply need to be good at your job’. If you are good enough, prove it, but women are looked over every day of the week and we will give them a shot. If you are intimidated by this, it just means we are doing something good.

We now have 42% gender ratios in our Kane Canberra office. We have definitely rattled some cages, but there was too much to focus on to reach what we wanted to achieve.

The industry is not friendly to all people, men or women. With the current rates of high suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, family issues, unrealistic time-frames, stress and long work days, we will never be an industry appealing to women. Especially as they are typically the primary care givers at home.  We start every day under pressure, from the get-go it is almost unachievable. It all comes back to having honest conversations, managing client expectations, making sure projects do not start under pressure, implementing 5-day work weeks, setting the standard for work-life-balance and taking leave entitlements without guilt or shame.

Essentially, the pale, stale, middle age, male brigade needs to listen to the next generation.

I am on the National Board of NAWIC, an exceptional space for women in management but noting the gap for site based women… In my spare time I started a non-profit called Build Like a Girl. Which came about from some of the crappy experiences I had on site and the network I didn’t have. I still hear horror stories weekly about people’s experiences which have only changed at a glacial rate from when I was experiencing it 20+ years ago. Through my network we connected a whole range of women, from mothers and older women who have kicked off construction later in the game, to young women. A true representation of all ranges of people, seeing themselves in the construction ambassadors.

There is always this sliding scale of acceptance for women, which men will never have to face. A young carpentry apprentice rang me distraught the other day, she was put through the ringer by a female Project Manager for wearing short shorts on site. She was distraught, so I went out to the site, took a photo of all the blokes’ shorts and sent it to the PM, some were shorter and tighter than hers. There is no reason for different rules. The ridicule, judgement or perception that you are not as good at your role has no basis on your ability.

From a sexuality perspective, yeah I was terrified to expose myself further. When I was looking for roles at the beginning so many of the responses were about ‘why would you want to be on the tools, are you a lesbian?’ I honestly just wanted to use a nail gun all day. I also wasn’t particularly comfortable with my own sexuality in a small minded small town. I created an imaginary boyfriend; the lie became really big. It became taxing as I couldn’t remember his career, or his name, it changed left right and centre.

When I moved to Sydney, it became easier to be honest with myself. It took me until 28 to come out to my colleagues. It was at a NAWIC event. Whether you are a girly-girl or you look a little more like me, there is always a stigma. It is getting better as society changes, but I shudder to think about those who are transgender on site. They are no doubt there but we don’t see them because they are not safe or supported in the workplace.

My Grandfather and my mother always told me women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. Every time I went home crying, mum would support me, send me back the next day and tell me to prove them wrong.

 

 

Jo is exceptional. Already she is making waves as GM of Kane in Canberra – changing a culture sorely in need of change and bringing in an new era of diversity with projects such as the Strathnairn Charity House – replete with opportunities for women and training and education through Ginninderry’s SPARK program. All of us left the interview head over heels in awe of Jo’s drive, the positive influence she is having on the industry and the focus she has had to forge her own path. It’s now and then that we feel floored by the people we interview – this was one of those times! It’s so amazing the change that one person can have. And in our opinion – that is why diversity at the top is a must. We can’t wait to see what’s on the cards next and thank Jo for giving up her time to speak with us. J, D & R xx

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