T3 Collingwood / A group interview with the women in management  / 
Unicorn Projects

story / Interview / April 2, 2024

When I look back on my career in construction, one project brings me the most joy – RMIT Capital Works. It’s not because of the project complexity, size, or design, because I absolutely worked on more impressive projects, but it’s the team dynamics and incredible people that stick in my memory. Our team was majority women, an experience I had never had, and would never have again. A unicorn project team. The levels of collaboration, comradery, success, and fun are a credit to the legends involved and I wish every project was as enjoyable as that one.

Fast forward many years, I recall the first time I entered the site office at T3 Collingwood and was met with majority women in the site office. I couldn’t believe it, a rare and excellent sight! I knew it was another unicorn project team when Mei, the project manager took us (her client) for a site walk, managed to get locked into site, but proceeded to climb the fence (equipped with barbed wire) to get us all out – what a dead set legend!

T3 Collingwood was recently completed, on time, on budget and currently celebrates being the tallest mass timber structure in Australia. I couldn’t wait to meet with the project team and hear their experiences, we hope you enjoy hearing about this excellent project, with women on all sides – from client (JL), project management (TE) and builder (Balance of the crew) – Rosie xx

 

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Rosie Leake (RL): What’s your first memory of construction?

Tegan Eldridge (TE): My earliest memory of construction was starting my career with BHP Billiton. There were lots of pressure vessels and not an ounce of interior design!

Anna Charalambous (AC): My first construction site memory was around age 6, on weekends with my Dad at the family steel fabrication business, I vividly remember being reminded not to go swimming in the galvanizing kettle at the back of the fabricators yard. I think those weekends formed the basis of my love of details and understanding how things are manufactured.

Holly Shannon (HS): I guess my first construction memory would be my first job at Icon, The Regent Theatre Refurbishment, which was really cool.

Mei Doery (MD): My first memory is probably my first PM. He had a saying that was like be on time, be prepared, listen…..or you’re for the tip. He loved it so much, he stuck it to the wall of the site office.

Sophie Barmby (SB): My dad’s in construction and he used to work for Mirvac, I remember my siblings and I riding our scooters around Waverley Gardens before it opened.

Bojana Pasic (BP): When I was trying to make orientation day for uni, I wasn’t really sure where I was going. I just sat on a bus and then went to Caroline Springs and ended up at a residential site. I just thought, oh, dear, what is this, what did I get myself into?Maria Hindy (MH): My earliest memory was being a grad at ProBuild, my first job was at West Side Place. It was a huge project, a big Welcome to the construction industry and I haven’t looked back.

Jo Lees (JL): My earliest memory of a construction site is at home in Sydney where my parents live next door to a large synagogue. It burnt down in the mid 90’s (electrical fault, nothing sinister) and they rebuilt its replacement resulting in the largest synagogue in the southern hemisphere. However, during construction, us kids, along with the neighbours, used to sneak in and run around playing in the evenings. Unfathomable these days!

RL: Can you tell us a little about what stood out in this project, compared to others you have been involved in?

TE: I recently read some career advice; I recommend that if people in your industry are talking about something you’re not really interested in, that’s non-work related. Stick around for the conversation because it will turn to work afterwards, and you’ll still be there and you’ll still be involved.

T3’s social context flipped this on its head, there was such a diverse range of people and interests that those conversations were often things that kept the whole group engaged. The team created a friendly environment where I felt more myself, more at home, and more relaxed.

BP: Yes, the environment was definitely different, for both the women and men, the discussions and conversations were more relatable and instantly that makes you feel comfortable. As opposed to steering away from the group, to avoid being surrounded by discussions about cricket, golf and footy, everyone has different interests and they weren’t afraid to talk about them!

SB: I agree with you, Boj (BP). I do like football and can chat about it with the lads, but I never felt on the outskirts of a conversation at T3. It was so inclusive, we would chat about our weekends, have a little gossip and notice when one another got their nails done, it was incredibly fun!

AC: Collaboration was amazing on this project. Once lockdowns were over, and interstate travel was back up and running I was always welcomed with open arms by the team. The culture of this project was always arms wide open, embrace the new consultant, new supplier, or even new Icon team member as the ECI wrapped up and construction delivery began, everyone was really pumped for the new ideas they could bring to the table. More importantly the collaboration meant you could always phone a friend when challenges came up and everyone would chip in until it we had a solution.

MH: I completely agree with Anna on collaboration, not only amongst like us as a team from ICON, but with the consultants, client and different stakeholders. The collaboration and respect that everyone had for each other was something that I haven’t experienced before on a job and I reflect fondly on. I believe it is the reason the project was so successful. Some working relationships evolved to become actual friendships, which you don’t often leave projects saying.

JL: I think generally there were fewer egos around the table. Whether this was the nature of the site team, or the presence of more women, it’s hard to know. But I came away with friends rather than work colleagues and that is always a sign of a great project.

It’s easy to say that the T3 team was so dynamic and efficient because there was a large percentage of women but I genuinely believe this is the case! We had a very honest conversation at the start of the project that we would stay on top of ‘awkward’ conversations and have a chat over a coffee if necessary. Our site meetings were fun and I genuinely looked forward to them. Not to mention the fact that we were working on a sustainable, innovative and exciting project and we all carried a sense of pride with that.

MD: Construction is filled with difficult conversations, in a typical context, the relationship between builder, project manager and client can be quite combative. But when it came to Tegan and Jo, it was not like this, it often went along the lines of ‘ look, I respect your opinion, but I’m gonna have to strongly disagree with XYZ’. There was a very equal and mutual respect for each other, no one spoke down to or over each other. Regardless of the topic or outcome, we could resolve it in a productive and positive way.

TE: Yeah, I’d very much echo that from our perspective as well. We are in the middle of client, builder negotiations and when that is a combative relationship it is incredibly challenging. This project is different – I think there’s been a real collaboration and teamwork, like a concept of a common goal that everybody’s working towards and just really wonderful relationships to achieve that. From design through the construction and arguing the variations.

Danielle Savio (DS): playing devil’s advocate, Do you think it was like a personality thing that the people on the project were just really likeable? Or do you think it reflected the gender diversity you had on the job? Maybe that ‘alpha persona’ wasn’t there?

SB: I do think personalities come into it, but in this case it was sort of like led from above. Mei, Tegan Jo, all behaved with respect and it trickle down to the team.

MH: I’m being general when I say that I think as females we have less of an ego and I think like more we’re more open to criticism and more open to other people’s ideas in general. I think that was led really well here and it made it feel like it made the whole team feel safe to collaborate and speak what they thought. We could provide opinions without feeling like we would be judged. I think regardless of the alpha and non alpha, I think just not having too much of any one personality is key.

RL: Which probably is a good introduction to how the construction workers, suppliers and Subbies responded because I imagine well Icon might have been majority female. Do you think that there was any kind of difference in how subbies, you know, spoke about your team?

MD: They’re always positive to me, but I do think genuinely they had a positive experience. The project meetings were not immune to the typical experience of not being heard though. But those moments will unfortunately happen everywhere.

The project was really well organized, the women of the team are really into their detail and we received lots of positive feedback about it. The subbies weren’t used to this level of attention and they enjoyed the efficiencies it brought.

Ultimately the project was really successful, the facts speak for themselves.

DS: Did you feel the pressure to get it right or to kind of outperform so that there was no backlash?

MD: Oh yeah, I remember at the start of the job I was at a leadership conference chatting to my peers about the project team breakdown. I said ‘no matter what, at all costs, this job has to succeed, we need to prove that we are as good as, or better than the rest.’

RL: Speaking from my own career, I have never had a woman manager, I’ve learned the most from the women in the ranks and peer mentoring. What’s been your experiences?

MD: I was very lucky with the one female PM that I had, she was the first person to ever tell me I could be a PM in my career development meetings. I don’t think I would be where I am today without her, she saw potential, where I couldn’t.

AC: When I think about my experiences, there hasn’t been organic mentoring or representation of women in leadership, more peer mentoring. My exposure to women in leadership was more so at structured events like NAWIC or organized networking events.

BP: Looking back, I have not had any women PM managers. I noticed the difference on T3, because in the past I always thought I was doing things wrong, as I wasn’t doing them how the men would, but I was just doing the tasks differently. I have also never had as much support for my work-life-balance commitments as I had on this project. I have found that women in construction support each other really well, shared lived experiences have helped me form great relationships.

HS: Mei more regularly checked in one on one with all of us and offered support, we always knew where we stood and what we were striving towards. I was also more comfortable talking about remuneration and other challenging topics with her.

RL: What other topics were normalised along with salary negotiations?

MD: Imposter syndrome and leaving detailed, complicated meetings with no idea how to proceed. A couple of times, we looked at each other, acknowledged we had no idea, but we could figure it out. That rarely happens with men, they are better at faking it till they make it.

We also normalised women’s health concerns, often you would hear ‘I have my period’ or ‘I have cramps’. One of the women even told her story of her first period and tampon use. I looked to my left and the male CA was just not moving, not typing, sitting there, awkwardly frozen at his computer. It was hilarious.

TE: I would love to see a world where tampons and band aids, which are both used to absorb blood, are considered no different to each other.

AC: Pregnancy/maternity leave – I felt really supported, like a contributing member of the team, right until I left on maternity leave. Its sad to think some women can feel overlooked knowing that soon they will step away from the day-to-day business life as they expand their family.

RL: Tell us a little about your experience with parental leave?

AC: Transitioning into parenting on this project was interesting; I didn’t want to leave, I joked that T3 was my baby before my baby came along. I didn’t want to hand it over, I was so passionate about the project, but Mei supported me every step of the way, I knew I was leaving it in safe hands.

My maternity leave was busy with a newborn and toddler at home, but it is nice to have check in calls from time to time, see how the project’s progressing. It was great to reconnect with the team during this time too, and feel like I had stepped away but wasn’t forgotten.

On reflection, there was a lot of work on the handover and transitioning away from the business process for maternity leave, but not a lot on how to transition back into work. At times I was probably a little inpatient, ready to get back into the swing of projects and responsibilities. I think some work still needs to be done on how to welcome mothers, parents generally after parental leave.

RL: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself, or someone new to industry?

JL: Ask questions! I was so shy when I first started I felt like any question was a stupid question (or that I should already know the answer). But the reality is that I haven’t yet met anyone who is not willing to share their knowledge and there is no such thing as a stupid question. Nor does anyone expect the younger cohort to know everything. Within a few years I was lucky enough to find some allies who encouraged me out of my shell.

SB: Stand up to yourself for yourself, respectfully, you will get pushback but it will work out long term.

AC: Don’t be defined by what you studied, where you last worked or the job title you think you should have. Remembers your career path is about apply skills and gaining experience, it doesn’t have to be a linear progression up the corporate ladder.

BP: Get out of your comfort zone, ask questions and surround yourself with the right support. Know your boundaries and have a strong sense of character, It’s been a huge lesson learned for me.

MD: It’s just a job, we’re not saving lives here. If you focus on the people, the project sorts itself out at the end of the day, it’s as simple as that. I love building, but there are bigger things outside of work.

MH: Trust yourself, if you don’t understand what’s going on in the room, nine times out of ten, the person sitting next to you doesn’t understand either. If you can’t put it together yourself, ask the question and trust yourself.

HS: The first piece of advice I was given was on my first day, a woman asked me ‘so why did you choose to do this? If you don’t love it, get out.’ I am glad I didn’t get out, but I think it’s a valid question.

TE: Enjoy building relationships, I look around this group and I met most of you in different forums, it’s a small industry. I love the strong women I have met and the relationships I can leverage along my career journey.

AC: If you’ve got a really difficult meeting, bring cake; chocolates, donuts or food of some description. Food is glue, it brings people together.

RL: We love to end with something a loved one used to say, but as we have so many friends on the call, is there a project saying that comes to mind?

ALL: The post-it’s!

We present you – a bunch of sayings that were written down and stuck on the wall:

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