Be creative in how you show equality, how you show them up. I have always said, to be a chief executive in this industry you need persistence, a very thick skin and a good sense of humour. I have all three. I have not been afraid to say ‘yes’ to whatever came along. I come from a refugee family, and we were all in survival mode. I survived.
I studied and graduated as a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Melbourne. I started working as an Architect, then came back to teaching at the University, eventually going out again into Architecture and to do some project management work. Then I was appointed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Victoria in the Planning Division (the old VCAT).
The first woman on the Tribunal and the first architect on the Tribunal. And of course people thought it was a casting couch appointment. So what did I do? I sat and waited to see what would happen. The chairman was double my age, half my size. It did his ego a lot of good. I said nothing, but the rumours kept coming.
And then the smoking hospital chimney came along – the old Prince Henry Hospital, which is no longer. It was the subject of objections. The hospital had applied for a permit to extend. So we had a case! I found a bit of vital evidence in the case. The chairman of my panel to his credit gave me the credit. And so the rumours subsided. Then we had a court case because we refused a development application. Of course, I wasn’t qualified to be on the panel!
This is what sometimes happens to women. The developers took me to court. They sent a private investigator to my office, pretending to look for a job. I was doing consulting work with the AIA (then RAIA) as well as recruitment work at the time. The case was presented that I wasn’t qualified and I got appointed because of the casting couch! And then the judge said ‘Have you read Ms Avdiev’s qualifications? I am going to lunch now, I suggest you read her qualifications over lunch and we will resume.’ The case was withdrawn.
I printed off a leaflet with all my old and new property industry experience and consultancy work and sent it to every property related consulting firm on the East Coast. It worked. From then on, by the end of the 80s I had opened a Sydney office and built up the two offices to 17 people. Then came the 1987 stock market crash and the 1990s recession, I was too young and stupid to retrench them all at once, so it took me six years to recover, but I survived. In 2008 I moved Avdiev out of its glamorous city offices. Now in the suburbs in both cities, the Avdiev Group and the Avdiev Report are going from strength to strength and growing and changing. I am a family friendly employer. We are a team, and we accommodate each other. The kids come to work in the school holidays and the babies used to come to work.
One memorable moment, Rebecca and I were doing the accounts and we had the baby under the desk and she was screaming. I answered the telephone and the man at the other end said ‘Oh I’m sorry Rita, are you having a day off?’ and I said ‘Oh no, the babies come to work!’ Stunned silence at his end.
The Avdiev Group provides remuneration benchmarking services to the property, investment and construction industry and built environment related professional consultants. The Avdiev Report is the result of a formal survey process among industry employers conducted bi-annually. We research and cover 10 market sectors throughout Australia from the fund managers to the service providers. There are 400 pages in the report, 360 positions and salary tables, commentary and business conditions reported by the subscribers.
We hold 20 plus years of salary data for the whole built environment industry. How did we begin? One of my clients was the head of a large property investment arm of a major listed company. He had a fight with his HR department about pay in the property industry in the late nineteen eighties. He rang up and said ‘Can you come in and see me?’ I ended up doing research among the investment community and writing a report. He beat his HR into shape and pacified the young team. And that’s how it started. I published a mini report. And people started saying – you’ve done it for them, can you do it for us? We added more and more market sectors to the report over the years.
I’d seen the opportunity. It hasn’t been because I am the ultimate start up. I have been the ultimate Gen Y career hopper. Then I started my own company, loved it and stayed put. I have ridden the highs and lows. The GFC was my third recession. I have learnt the lessons of history. I’m still here and I’ve recreated my company into a specialist remuneration consultant and publisher. I’ve changed and my team will come on the journey with me.
I was already a feminist in disguise when I graduated from Architecture. I was interviewed for an architecture graduate position by the directors, and I got the job. I didn’t meet my new team until I walked into the drawing office and there were all the calendar girls on the walls with their breasts hanging out.
Come Friday night they all went out for drinks and I wasn’t invited, so I thought – better do something about this! I went into the city and found a poster of Mr Universe, pinned up Mr Universe on the wall between the girlies. I didn’t say anything, they didn’t say anything, but come Friday night they said ‘Do you want to come for a drink?’
The advice I would give to young women and men would be to hang in there. I mentor a group of young architects and project administrators. They ask me questions and I give them tools for survival. NFW stands for No F**king Worries. The question was, I am the only girl in a group of men, we go on site and they start to swear. They realise I am there and they start to apologise. Then I feel even more isolated, then I think what do I do? I said “Just say NFW, let’s move on.”
What advice would I give?
- Be brave
- Say yes
- Try everything
- Try something new
- Don’t take offence because it may not have been meant as offence
- Don’t be fragile
- Don’t look for safe spaces
- There are no silly questions
- Learn the lessons of history
- Adapt or Die!
What can we say about Rita? From the moment we met her, she has been a complete source of wit, gumption and some wonderful (and not so wonderful) stories about her time in the industry. She is an absolute doyenne of the the built environment, of the architecture faculty at the University of Melbourne and of women in business in Melbourne. We hope that here we have captured Rita’s direct and down-to-earth energy. And we hope that her advice works as a list for you as it will for us in 2020. Thank you Rita! J&D xx