Rebecca Casson / CEO / Master Builders Association of Victoria  / 
Honoured

story / Interview / November 19, 2021

I can’t do what I do without the support of the amazing team at Master Builders Victoria, and other brilliant women, and it’s important to me that I assist as many people as possible on their journey and promote our wonderful industry. However, I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would ever be working in the building and construction industry.

Very early in my career, when I lived in England, I had the opportunity to work in private legal practice and decided it wasn’t for me. Instead, I chose to serve my community and work in the public service.

Through my government work, I became involved in various international engagement projects. I worked for Baron Bruce-Lockhart, who was a very skilled politician with a great vision for establishing global networks. When Baron Bruce-Lockhart wanted to broaden the established links beyond Europe, we engaged with the USA and developed a relationship with the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I worked in Virginia to create some economic engagement opportunities such as tourism, trade, and education. It was during this time that I was approached by representatives of the US Government and asked if I would take on the inaugural role as Executive Director of the British Committee for Jamestown, which was being established to commemorate America’s 400th Anniversary.

Jamestown, Virginia, is a distinct place as that is where the first English ships landed in 1607 and began America’s first permanent English colony.  The founding of Jamestown was 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in Massachusetts.

Commemorated once every 50 years, the Anniversary marked the arrival of the ships, and I was tasked with co-ordinating the commemoration from the UK-side. I reported to two very senior individuals, Lord Watson of Richmond and Sir Robert Worcester, and a very influential Board comprising celebrities, academics, members of the House of Lords, and members of Parliament.

The commemoration took place in 2007, and there was a lot of work in the lead up to it, including helping to organise for Her Majesty the Queen to travel to America for the occasion, importing a replica 17th century ship from Virginia to England and most significantly, encouraging the commitment of the Virginia Indians, the indigenous people, to participate in the commemoration. I was tasked with developing strong and trusted relationships with the Virginia Indian Chiefs and facilitating a way that they would feel comfortable to take part in the commemoration. It was a difficult thing to do, as we were asking them to participate in a series of events that highlighted a very challenging period for their families. However, those who are familiar with the story of Pocahontas know that, without the support that she gave to the English settlers, the settlement wouldn’t have survived.  And it was important that the Virginia Indians had the opportunity to tell the story from their perspective.

After that enormous and diverse role, I thought nothing could ever exceed it. However, my family and I came for a holiday to Australia, and we saw a future for us here. When the Victorian Government granted us a Skilled Migration Visa, one of the conditions was that we had to live and work in regional Victoria. We didn’t know where regional Victoria was – we had to use Google-Earth to decide where to live! In 2009, we moved to the other side of the world; no home to come to, no jobs, and our daughter was only nine years old at the time. It was confronting, and it pushed us out of our comfort zone, but I think it was one of the best things we’ve ever done and one of my most favourite achievements.

When we moved to Australia, I worked at the City of Greater Geelong part-time while our daughter settled into school. Then I was approached to be the CEO for the Committee for Geelong, which is a membership-based organisation promoting Geelong.

I took over as CEO of Committee for Geelong just as Alcoa and Ford announced that they were closing their manufacturing operations in the city and Shell announced it was selling the refinery. Geelong was going through a massive change, and I was thrust into that important community-transforming work. Part of that work was a key collaboration with the United Nations Global Compact Cities programme and RMIT, and we undertook a massive research project on second cities. Leading that project was a professional highlight of my time at the Committee.

I joined Master Builders Victoria (MBV) in January 2019 and am its first female CEO. I had been in the job for only a few days when I received notification from the Registered Organisations Commission that they intended to investigate the MBV elections, which had been administered prior to my appointment. That was a very challenging time. We cooperated fully with the Registered Organisations Commission, which led to an outcome of no civil penalties on MBV or any individual Directors from the subsequent Inquiry announced in May 2020. To support good compliance outcomes, MBV has since facilitated the process that all future elections would be undertaken independently and externally by the Australian Electoral Commission and not internally by MBV.

During my time at MBV, I have tried to implement an organisational change program. However, this has been somewhat slowed down by COVID-19.  Nevertheless, we are starting to see the impacts of the changes that we are implementing within our organisation and in our industry. We’ve been able to make some massive shifts just by being courageous and continuing to put our members first all the time, every time.

The International Women’s Day (IWD) breakfast MBV hosted in 2020 was a first for MBV. When I joined the organisation, I realised it had never fully celebrated IWD, and I was shocked; I couldn’t comprehend it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it in my first year because it was too soon, but I made it a priority to ensure that we did something in 2020; and the event sold out. I was blown away by how many people were on our waiting list and were supportive of it. For 2021, we went bigger. We were able to have 350 people attend in a COVIDSafe manner, and we sold out and had a massive wait-list again. It was one of the first events in 2021 that we held post-COVID lockdowns.

As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, I quickly realised that it wasn’t looking good and MBV successfully adapted to working remotely and undertaking activities in virtual formats. As COVID-19 fully hit, MBV undertook a massive amount of advocacy work and brought together other building and construction industry employer associations and unions. We developed a plan, a framework of what we needed to do, and pushed it hard with both the Government and our industry. I recognised it was a time like no other in recent memory, one that required a spirit of cooperation and a demonstration of commitment.

It was important to grapple with a major shared challenge for our industry and see our sector remain both safe and largely open, which was a considerable feat. Taking a joint approach and highlighting to the Government the importance of keeping our industry working was vital to our State’s economic recovery and helped to sustain many thousands of businesses and workers.

People have said to me they’ve never seen the cooperation that has been essential during this time, particularly between MBV and the CFMEU. Given the very long and turbulent history between our two organisations, I had to dig deep personally and professionally to nurture relationships in unchartered waters. That, for me, has been a big stand out and certainly contributed to keeping our industry both safe and largely open. I know it made a huge difference to Government when they engaged with our industry as we spoke with one voice.

Since joining MBV, I’ve had a keen focus on increasing the participation of women across all areas of our sector.  However, pushing through as a leader, particularly in our industry, is hard. Women and women leaders are often labelled aggressive, especially if they are being assertive or they may be labelled bossy when they are simply leading.  Women shouldn’t shrink themselves to make people happy. Gender bias persists in modern workplaces, and we have our heads in the sand if we don’t acknowledge that in our industry.

It is pleasing to see that Victoria is leading the nation in the number of women working in the building and construction industry, but more needs to be done. Building and construction has always been a male-dominated industry, but that needs to change if our sector is to reduce skills shortages and have a thriving and sustainable future.  More women are active in building and construction now than in the past, but they still make up just 2.5 per cent of all construction trades workers in Victoria.  Although, the percentage has increased to 13.6% of the total workforce number during the past year, which is great. MBV’s training arm, Master Builders Training Institute, offers Construction Induction Training, and 40% of participants in 2020 were women. It’s not 50% yet, but I was certainly impressed that we are almost there.

We must continue to challenge gender stereotypes and people’s attitudes. I often personally reflect on my own conscious and unconscious biases, and I also call people out quite a lot. MBV is often subjected to colourful comments on social media, especially when gender parity in our industry is being discussed. I’m known for personally telephoning people to discuss their comments.

Everyone has their point of view, and mine is that every time you have 50% female participation in a workforce, or at a board table or committee or at a meeting, the dynamic positively changes. There is an increase in productivity, and it’s all there in the data for everyone to see.

MBV has embarked on a diversity, equity and inclusion project underpinned by three strategic pillars: inclusive leadership, diverse workforce and a welcome, equitable and inclusive culture. As part of that, we’re reviewing our policies.  For example, our clothing policy no longer has images of what women, or men, should look like – or how they should dress. And we’ve taken out locations in our employment contracts, which are now location agnostic.  This has helped us to employ more people in regional Victoria.  For example, we’ve recently employed a team member that lives in regional Victoria, and she would not have considered joining MBV before. She couldn’t have managed the daily commute to Melbourne as she has two small children and works a compressed week. She’s told me how much she enjoys the arrangement with MBV and how the role has enabled her to progress in the workforce.

Through my role on the State Government’s Building Industry Consultative Council, I’ve also pushed for a collaborative approach by builders and others to compile joint submissions related to women in construction initiatives. Championing inclusion and women in the building and construction industry is an important goal of mine. I want to ensure that I’m a positive role model for my daughter and future generations of female leaders so that they are actively encouraged to follow their career dreams and they are judged on their abilities and achievements and not on their gender.

I continue to be inspired by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, who has spent decades researching courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Brené talks about having the courage to show up, despite not knowing what people will see or think, which reminds me of the women in our industry. It can be difficult when you don’t fit the norm, but it’s crucial that we show up anyway.

You’ve got to lean into the values you have. Be brave enough to be different. It’s essential that we all develop and embrace our narrative and tap into our natural talents rather than imitate the expectations of others. The advice that I follow centres on recognising that you don’t have to get it right every single time.

When things do go wrong, I always try to remember that the difficult times will pass. I also try to remember to say, “these are the best learning opportunities.” Even when you feel stuck, embracing that learning opportunity and moving forward is key because eventually, when you get out of the situation, and you take the time to reflect, you realise how much you’ve learned – and it might help to launch you into something great.

It can be difficult to find personal time because a CEO never really switches off, especially in these types of roles – I’m pretty much on 24/7, especially for the media. However, through the pandemic, I have found time to get into yoga; I find it therapeutic and restorative for my health and well-being, as is spending time with my family, eating well and sleeping well. I am also studying for my PhD, which I find quite meditative – although, with the excessive pandemic work I have had to undertake, it’s very challenging to get the time to focus on my study, which is frustrating!

In high pressure situations with lots of things happening, it can really suck the energy out of you, and you don’t always have the time to appreciate the magnitude of your achievements or the positive impact you are making. Now, when I consider what MBV has achieved throughout the pandemic, I realise it would have taken us many more years to implement some of the necessary changes and build the relationships that have developed.

As part of that pandemic work, I was recently inducted into the 2021 Victorian Honour Roll of Women in the category of Leading Through Disaster.  Being chosen as part of a group of 23 extraordinary women is a humbling experience, and I am exceptionally honoured and proud. This group are a testament to the great leadership and indelible contribution women are making to Victoria and I congratulate them all.

I stand on the shoulders of many inspiring women and acknowledge all those male and female mentors who have supported me on my journey, both here and Australia and overseas.  I am particularly grateful to those who took the time – in the middle of a pandemic – to nominate me.

My selection is recognition for the many thousands of women working in the building and construction industry.  It is also recognition for all the building and construction industry participants that have worked so well together to keep our industry safe and, for the most part open, during the pandemic.  I am grateful to them, and especially the dedicated MBV team, for their continued tireless efforts and their support of me over the last few years.

Leading through disaster has certainly taught me that it’s vital to remain optimistic whilst finding ways to collaborate and empower everyone to build a better future.

 

Rebecca is such a prominent leader in the Construction Industry. We were so thrilled to hear of her induction into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, an extremely important and well deserved accolade for an exceptional leader who has done lots both for the industry (particularly during Covid) and for women’s participation. Rebecca speaks with such passion and presence and has headed MBV through arguably one of the toughest times in its history. We are excited to interview her and bring you her story. J & D xx

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