After I graduated (RMIT-Bachelor of Construction Management), my first job was at Alfasi Steel Constructions. As a Site Coordinator on the Museum of Victoria Project. It just blew me away. I was in heaven. I knew from that first day, that all I wanted was to build major projects. I was like a sponge. Just so keen. All these lovely men embraced me and took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew. Over the next nine years I worked up the ranks to be a Project Manager for Alfasi and I worked on Federation Square, QV, World Square (Sydney), MCG and Spencer Street Station, to name a few. Many times people would walk into my site office and ask me for the Project Manager..I would say “you’re looking at him” I loved doing that.
After I had my first child, I was happy being a new Mum but I was miserable in the part time role I was in at work, so I decided that this was the time for me to jump from subcontractor to project management for a builder. I joined Grocon to build the stadium, AAMI Park. This took me back to full time work, high pressure but it was the best decision in my career.
Building AAMI Park with Grocon, challenged me and forced me to achieve more than I thought I could. My amazing boss Steve Richardson, taught me how to lead and to have no fear, he gave me so much responsibility. He also taught me how to have better time management. Many project managers struggle to balance work and family. The family often gets pushed to the side. I was no different. At the time my daughter was 18 months and I was so focused and stressed on the job. Steve told me he missed out on so much family time and said that he never watched his son play weekend football. He said to me ‘You need to sort yourself out. You are not working Saturdays any more!’ And thank God for that because I am sure my family would have just traded me in.
The construction industry is a pretty authentic environment. It grounds you. There isn’t time to be a princess. It has changed a lot from when I started out. It was all fax machines and smoking in the office. Porn in the gang boxes…It was ridiculous! I remember working on Federation Square in year 2000 when I had to speak up. I told the union organizer at the time that this sort of material was highly inappropriate. And he backed me up. Thank God the industry has considerably changed, since then.
The title Project Manager or Site Manager does not actually make you a leader. A true leader is someone who is respected by the team and is actually able to lead and motivate the team to deliver. You can be an absolutely asshole and intimidate people, and there are a lot of managers like this in the industry, but the team won’t follow with passion, they follow from a place of fear.
The last 20 years in construction has shown me a good mix, of amazing men who have supported me, lead me and empowered me and then I have found, as I moved into more senior roles that some men have pretended they are fine with a woman telling them what to do, but when you need to get serious, I feel that some men really struggle to take it straight up and I have found many to be passive aggressive. If a man can’t take a woman leading them, it shows their own insecurities.
I have found that when you are dealing with men in construction, most will try to take the power and you need to look them in the eye, and be a little bit scary. If you are bubbly all the time then they just wont take you seriously. But all in all, it’s been mostly amazing and there has been mostly wonderful people who bring a smile to my dial every day, even when we have issues overflowing. That’s the best thing about the process of building buildings, you have the sweet Peggies, the hilarious Site Managers and precious subcontractors who act like princesses more than I ever could.
I manage with sugar and spice. A woman in construction needs to be relentless with a smile, with the team, subcontractors and all stakeholders. You can be serious and still show them you care. I’m always genuine and make everyone feel like they are important. If you do this, people will go over and beyond for you. That’s how you build buildings.
I used to get called Queen B on the QV project. I really liked that name (I thought that’s a very appropriate name)… it was only after I found out the B stood for ‘Bitch!’ and I was like ‘Ohhhh!’ This is what happens, females get branded a Bitch just because we are the boss.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was building Spencer Street Station and I fainted on site in the middle of a meeting with the Architects, so I had to tell everyone that I was pregnant. I was trying to hide it because I didn’t know how the hell I am going to deal with a baby and my job! When I announced that I was having my first baby, my boss cried and thought that I was going to finish working. They thought I was a write off. They were really shocked when I came back after one year maternity leave. I use to drive to a back street, line the car windows with towels to express my milk in privacy. At Grocon with my second baby, It was amazing. I worked from home some times, had Skype meetings and when they really needed me, I would go in with the baby. Grocon was like my family.
I came back after five months after my second baby. I remember bringing my baby in an important meeting in the board room full of men and my baby was supposed to sleep at that time and of course he didn’t. Thank God I came equipped with all the shawls and I actually had to breastfeed the baby to shut him up. You do what you have to do. And that is the kind of company you want to work for.
I tell my daughter; “If it is meant to be, it is up to me.” I always tell her that. And you can’t blame other people for the circumstance. If you want to achieve something it is up to you to put in the hard work. The other thing is to always make sure that your partner treats you equally and wants to be a capable parent. It is really important for a women who wants to pursue her career, to have a partner that is willing to drop off and pick up kids to childcare and school and to have dinner on the table when you walk in the door, makes school lunches, puts loads of washing on and mops floors. I think it is important that we teach our little girls and boys that. And when you have young girls and they say “Mummy, I really like that house or car…, you say “well honey you’re going to have to work hard for that”
My husband has always been my professional coach, giving me career advice and encouraging me to strive to the next level. He has never been selfish and held me back in my career. He works full time in a high pressure job too and he has his own catering business called Fat Chef Productions. To be honest I don’t know how he actually does all that and what he does to support me and our family. He is setting an excellent example for our kids and their future expectations. Its not easy to manage our family life around our full time jobs. We just take one day at a time, sharing the journey together.
We sat outside with Vanessa on a beautiful spring evening at the Prince Wine Store in South Melbourne. It was awe inspiring. Vanessa has built such a great depth of experience on high profile projects and has managed to fit it all in with a jam packed family life. It really was a breath of fresh air. She appears so accomplished yet so down to earth. Not afraid to speak her mind and tell you like it is. Thank you Vanessa for the laughs, encouragement and support. We love your spunk!