I love being on site. It is a dynamic environment and it’s a fun team environment. I went from contracts administrator to contracts manager to commercial manager. Jim McGreevy, my sponsor early on, helped build my career. I never asked for anything, he always proposed new roles to me. In 2006 he asked me to be the NSW/QLD regional commercial manager. I was having fun on site and didn’t know whether to step up or not. He said I needed to come to head office and make a go of it.
I trusted him and within 6 months, I was promoted to Regional Director, I was 32 and the only female. I think I’m still the only female director Multiplex has ever had. I have no memory of the first year of being a director because I was so stressed. It was a sink or swim environment. If you swim, you blossom. There are pros and cons to that notion.
Two and a half years ago, I was asked to come here to Robert’s Pizzarotti and was given a blank sheet of paper to create the best construction company I could and that’s what we have done. To get a black sheet of paper 20 years into your career is pretty special.
Being a CEO is a lonely job at times, leadership can be lonely. Competitors love to attack you; they can’t help themselves. You have to make sure you’re well supported and know how to get to your happy place. When I’m having a bad day, I go out to our sites and see our employees and see their happy faces and I know I’m doing the right thing. As a young woman you have to build a support base around you whether that’s family, friends, coaches or mentors.
I was a director at Multiplex for 7 or 8 years before I went on maternity leave to have my baby. My return from maternity leave was horrible. My boss said that they didn’t want to give me my old job back because the guy who was doing my role for the past 12 months might resign. At the same time, Lendlease rang and asked me to run their biggest business unit. So, I left Multiplex to experience something different.
I’ve heard it all. A foreman on site said to me, ‘you won’t last’. Looking back, there wasn’t even a female toilet on site when I started out, so I had to go past 2 office towers to get to a toilet I could use (for over 12 months). I accepted that. But what’s worse is that I only twigged that it wasn’t right until about 5 years ago. I am now a toilet fiend; I inspect toilets everywhere I go. To the extent that on our Concord Hospital project, we have a breastfeeding room, so that women returning from parental leave can express milk during the day.
We don’t have many women in our industry. We have very high presenteeism, we have very high divorce rates, and a very high suicide rate. I can’t fix it, but I can influence the outcome by how we behave. That’s what we are trying to do, we are trying to make the industry a better place. A lot of people say you need to fix the industry for women. You don’t need to fix it for women, you need to fix it for men and the women will benefit. You need to fix it for everyone.
If I believe something in my heart, I keep going and keep pushing for it, you might have to change tack but I keep pushing for it. We are stronger together. The worst that I have seen, which irritates me immensely, is when women pull down other women and I sadly see a lot of it and I have zero tolerance for it. Women need to celebrate and raise up other women – there are so few of us. Women that don’t support other women need to be called out.
It’s down to the individual, but I think we need to call out bad behavior and say it is unacceptable. In our company if someone behaves in an unacceptable fashion, they are exited. 12 years ago, I was at a company party and one of the young workers said something very abusive straight to my face. I didn’t sack him when he said it, I disciplined him. But if the same thing happened now, I’d have no hesitation to sack him. There is a bygone era where that dialogue was accepted by society. Now, it is not ok and such behavior must be addressed by men and women.
When employing women, you need to look for them and find them. They are out there, and they are talented. You have to be patient to employ them.
My team is 65% female. If you slice us vertically, we are 33% female. We absolutely employ women; we hunt for them. As a generalization, men are far easier to employ than women. If a guy has 4 out of 10 attributes, they say they are proficient. If a woman has 9 out of 10, she says she can’t do 10 percent. It is that self-doubt that really hurts women. When employing women, you need to look for them and find them. They are out there, and they are talented. You have to be patient to employ them. They often have extreme loyalty to where they work. And they need to be paid what they are worth, not what a company can get away with.
We have just signed our EBA with a 5 day calendar, working Monday to Friday every week. We have the ability to build every job on a 5 day per week program. The feedback from the trial project we have is that workers are happier, healthier, less fatigued, less depressed, and more productive. Giving workers Saturdays off, gives them an additional 6 weeks leave per annum, it is massive. Our projects moving forward will be tendered 5 days a week and the union is on board and very supportive.
100% I experience imposter syndrome to this day. I have this phrase, which is ‘choose your attitude’. My husband gave it to me years ago. When I was at Lendlease, the CEO to his credit, mandated at every event, 32% of the invite list had to be female to reflect the company being 32% female. So, as a female, I was invited to everything. The other male GMs weren’t, and they would say to me you’re only invited because you’re a female, and I’d say ‘yes maybe’, but I was in that room and I was networking and hearing the message firsthand. So, I owned it. I’m there and you’re not. Don’t make excuses for it, embrace it. Choose your attitude and life will be a lot rosier.
People say you should throw down a ladder to bring up the next person behind you. But Dr Kirsten Ferguson rightly points out, you need to throw down a fishing net and bring up as many women as you can.
Go back 10 years, there were no training targets, no indigenous procurement in tenders. But there is now and contractor’s focus on these, it forces them to think differently. I think we will achieve equality, but for that to happen, every women who succeeds needs to pay it forward, they need to bring other women with them. I’m in a position where I shout it from the rooftops. The more we support and get the message out, the greater chance we have of achieving equality.
The great thing about covid is that it has put the construction industry into the fastest and biggest experiment on flexible working. The working from home orders meant men experienced what it’s like for women on maternity leave – the isolation, the loneliness, being locked in your house. When you return to work as a mother, the only part of your pre-baby life that is untouched is your job. To take that away from someone returning to work is horrific. I hope men now have a different view of what maternity leave feels like and they will ensure all women return to their jobs post mat leave. Covid has been amazing for flexibility, and we have to capitalize on that and make it the new norm.
I have a 7-year-old and I make birthday cakes – Alison shows us a picture of a cake dog, Elsa, Minecraft TNT – They take about 12 hours and I also do jigsaw puzzles. 3000 pieces or 5000 pieces, because I sit there it turns my brain off. I spend time with my husband and my son – they are the light of my life. I must say I can make it all work only because my husband does 50% of everything we do, we share pick up, drop off, cleaning and cooking. He is an amazing dad and if I didn’t have that support, I couldn’t do my job.
My dad had two sayings. He’d say, ‘even sheilas can do it’. Dad was a marine engineer and my sister is a civil engineer. My mum said in my dad’s eulogy, ‘in many respects, John got two sons and she got two daughters’. Dad always said to me ‘if you don’t know what to do, try something, try anything. Just don’t stop trying’.
Interviewing Alison is a breathe of fresh air. She is warm and funny, but she is direct when it comes to telling us about her experiences. Having someone like Alison at the helm of a major construction company is a boon for the industry. Alison is dedicated to making the industry better and dedicated to equality. It is the kind of passion and focus required to make a difference. Whilst putting the finishing touches on this piece, Roberts Pizzarotti became Roberts Co. 100% Australian owned once again. Alison lamented the rebrand, but her excitement at this new chapter was palpable. We wish Alison and Roberts Co all the success that 2021 can bring. J, D & N.