Thoughts by D / Editor GAZELLA  / 
Leadership ... and where's my hoverboard?

story / Opinion / January 31, 2021

Recent events in the world have for us shone a light on what it truly means to be a good leader. The traditional rhetoric rests around those masculine qualities of strength, endurance, hardness, stoicism and those who are willing to tread beyond the so-called comfort zone. But where does that leave leaders that represent all other aspects of the human spectrum. What can they add to the existing system we inhabit?

Editor Rosie and I had a good chat about this and it inspired me to jot down our thoughts. Firstly, in our eyes, good leaders aren’t scared of being vulnerable and a good leader can step away, or be present in spirit rather than physically. A leader shouldn’t have to be there 24/7; it’s critical that they can take space and also give their people space, but then walk back in with a welcome and open arms. A team, if they are well managed, will stay the course without leadership present. We’ve seen great and less great examples of this through the pandemic. Leaders who had to step away through losses and their teams stayed on track. Leaders who knew when to defer to people with better expertise. Leaders who were vulnerable in a public space.

And boy did we see some leaders who were unfit for their duties.

Secondly, It’s essential to role-model this behaviour of boundaries. Leaders need to know when to show people that they are present, and when they are not. It’s a lesson younger people need to learn so that we don’t repeat the cycles of the past in our industry, particularly with roles such as ‘project manager’ where the mentality has always been that of twelve hour days and six day weeks. In Rosie’s words ‘people need to know their limitations and respect their own boundaries.’ I mean, if one role models that they have limitations and boundaries, that only shows others that they need to seek clarity on their own limitations and the strength to set their own boundaries, right?

And here’s the biggy. We’ve all worked with that manager who is devoid of any emotional sensibilities. The one that fundamentally can’t understand anyone may not be able to cope with what they are coping with. The one who couldn’t see someone struggling if they were being directly told by said person. High EQ is fundamentally important to leadership. As Rosie also aptly noted ‘you can be sensitive, empathetic and strong. Have you seen JACINDA!?’

Having leaders with high EQ isn’t directly linked to leadership equality arguments. High EQ isn’t a purely female trait (as much as we’d like to think it is). But it does play a role when unconscious bias still lends itself to leaders picking leaders who are clones of themselves. And unfortunately this can often mean leaders without the nuances that build teams that create diverse workplaces, especially if a workplace lacks diversity in the first place. Hey, that’s why many workplaces are homogenous.  Unconscious bias is systemic.

But why aren’t we finding more females in leadership in our industry? Even after the decade or so since most of us at GAZELLA graduated. Females in positions of power have barely shifted.

While Australia is making progress on many aspects of gender equality, female representation in leadership continues to flounder in what I’d say is a deep pool of concern. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) 2018–19 data shows that women may be 50.2% of the private sector workforce, however their stats in the upper echelons are fairly pitiful:

  • 31.5% of key management positions
  • 26.8% of directors
  • 17.1% of CEOs
  • 14.1% of board chairs.

Why is this relevant? Well because things haven’t really shifted in how we view leadership. We still see leadership as the task of men. Particularly white, middle-aged men. Even when the business case for females in leadership is so well proven as to be old news. The WGEA in a study with the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, found over five years that there is critical evidence of the importance of female representation in senior leadership roles. That this not only reduces that (disgustingly) persistent gender pay gap but also improves company profitability and productivity. No brainer, right?

The facts they uncovered in 2016 and 2017 were that equal representation on governing boards lead to a 6.3% reduction in the pay gap for full-time managers. The 2019 report found that women are now progressing to management roles faster than men, but it would still take two decades for women to have equal representation in full-time management positions. Yes, you heard it right. Equal representation in 2040! Where’s my hover-board? But not only that, for the spot of CEO, at current growth rates we won’t see equal share until 2100. Perhaps by then we will have colonised Mars with a matriarchy?

In construction the rhetoric still rests around recruiting women into construction, which is a great aim, and certainly you’d think that a more equal pipeline will create more opportunities for women to reach leadership positions. However, I find that it is interesting that many companies have been recruiting females in relatively large numbers for some years now, however middle management and upper management seems to be dotted, not littered with women.

It is hard to decipher the barriers to this? Is it because the more feminine qualities women bring to the table are swept away by unconscious bias (and I say feminine qualities, when really what I mean is the structural archetypes that society puts on women). Or is it that our industry is still so headstrong when it comes to flexibility, which causes women to flee in droves when they are ready to start families? As we’ve said, good Ieaders don’t need to be present full-time, so why haven’t we come up with some flexible models of leadership? We build these extremely complex structures, but can’t get our head around a leader who isn’t in the office 24/7?

I fundamentally think with unconscious bias that we need to change the dichotomy that exists between women in construction and traditional leadership modes in construction. Leadership may be born through the challenges that our industry throws up, but not all leaders need to be hard as nails and bully their way to the top.

If I seem angry or frustrated, it’s because I am. The industry and even some women, continue to pedal the idea of the hard leader. And it isn’t going to get us anywhere. Personally,  I’ve been accused of being “hard” myself and it frustrates me to fall into a mould and have my other qualities overlooked.

As we go through what is for most of us, an unprecedented crisis with the pandemic, it’s also important that we be wary of the glass cliff. A phenomenon of women taking leadership roles during periods where they have a higher chance of failure. Which in turn paints a picture of female incompetence that never existed.

We must change the picture of what a leader looks like in the built environment. We need to show that diverse minds, bodies, thoughts, religions, politics and polemics will create a stronger industry. And we need to protect the future of the industry of which we are leading. No longer can we support the drain of talented individuals, particularly women, because of leaders who won’t shift with the times. The time is now to change the face of leadership in the industry and we all must band together to do so. Or face being criticised as antiquated and obsolete.


Welcome back to 2021 Tribe. Hopefully a brighter year. This piece proudly brought to you with musing from Danielle Savio and Rosie Leake. Edited by Rosie Leake and Justine Hadj. We would love to hear your thoughts and opinions below. Or on our instagram @gazella_blog. D xx

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