Valerie Francis Associate Professor University of Melbourne  / 

story / Interview / July 13, 2015

I ended up in construction as I was pretty good at maths and science. The only options my school suggested were medicine or teaching, which I knew were wrong for me. When I was in matric (last year of school), my sister’s boyfriend was studying civil engineering. I had not even heard of engineering but it seemed a good fit from what I read. It was a really big surprise to end up being the only girl in my class at University in the late ’70s. I had no idea it was so male-dominated. I then started work in a consultancy doing both civil and structural design. I worked in a senior structural engineering role and in project management on the client side before joining academia.

In the late 1980s Adelaide was a real ‘old boys’ town – possibly still is! I started an MBA in the early 1990s with the thought to open my own business, then changed to a Masters in Project Management. It took a while to work out the course even existed, as it was such a new discipline! I had always been good at the project management roles I had undertaken. However, I found I really loved studying. This then led to research opportunities and eventually the University of Melbourne and the rest, is history! I found I could have a family and work full time which was pretty unheard of back then.

My career progression has been aided by my own dogged determination. It is my personality to never give up and I have always wanted to be able to support myself. I have never had a mentor or someone to guide me – you have to remember I am really old! I just knew I wanted to make a difference; career progression per se was not really on my agenda and when I moved to academia my colleagues called it “total career suicide”.  It took me ten years to end up back on the same salary. I love teaching but having the opportunity to research is a great privilege and something I really enjoy.

My latest research has been looking at factors that affect professional women’s career advancement. Since the 1980s, there has been a lot of research that showed due to the lack of networks or mentors, women within the industry don’t advance. Much of this research was qualitative, in other words; asking women or their managers why women aren’t progressing. The largest sample used was around forty women and the research outcomes have been echoed through much of the research and virtually unchanged in decades. The reality, as I saw it, was that some women were advancing within their careers, so what were they doing? What I found was that it was human capital variables like education, work hours, work experience that were important. Those women who had mentors, who had networks and planned their careers, progressed no higher than those who didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, networks and mentors are good. We know they reduce the number of people leaving the industry and are a great support.

We do know that men, in general, do advance because of these ‘sponsorship’ factors (in other words, someone giving you opportunities through mentorship and networking). This really indicates different processes are in place for men and women. From this work I then proposed that a gender inclusivity continuum exists in construction, with some women facing exclusion and some assimilation, that is; they fit in as they comply to the male norms of the industry. However, in general, women don’t experience true inclusion in construction. This I believe is because little value is currently placed on their unique attributes. To have true inclusion you need both social acceptance and a value placed on your unique attributes. We just are not there yet.

I think many companies are so focused on important short term goals that they do not invest in the future. We actually need more clever leaders to implement the cultural change necessary for the long term survival of the industry. Most of my research is targeted at industry or its participants and is about improving their lot. Good companies do care about their people and are making changes but things often change very slowly in construction.

In the Melbourne School of Design, we have 50% women in both our undergraduate courses and higher research degrees. Even in courses like construction we have 24% women in our undergraduate degree and 36% in our Masters in Construction Management. This is way above the national average. I think the structure of our courses mean students can delay decisions about choosing construction and this does help.

Maintaining a healthy work life balance is hard. I have lots of advice, little of which I practice myself! My first advice to others is that you need to decide what you value in your life. That differs for everyone but for most women it is about having a good life, which may or may not involve having kids. No one should have this dictated by their workplace. After that I would say; if you partner, then chose well (tick for me!). Get outside help when needed, stop being a perfectionist, stop caring about what others think of you. And use flexibility.

Mentoring is great. As my research shows, mentoring is strongly related to lower organisational turnover, so I know it is a good way of retaining women in the industry. The research has shown however, in general, it is not linked to career advancement. Four hundred and fifty six women cannot be wrong. I know some women will dispute this, but they may well be the exception rather than the rule. On closer questioning they often say ‘If it wasn’t for such and such I would have left.’ In a similar way women will argue they have true inclusion but when chatting it is apparent they are really well assimilated – which is a darn sight better than being excluded!

I believe young women need to recognise that they cannot have it all at once. Patience please. Being ambitious in itself does not mean advancement in construction, not without lots of hard work.

My mother always told me, ‘Do your best and be good!’ Both my mother and father were great advocates for equity and that included women. My grandfather died when my dad was young and his mum had to run the farm. He said women could do anything, but even he, in the 1970s, must have been wondering about my career choice! He headed a social welfare agency. My mother has an Order of Australia for services to women and children. They both encouraged all of their five kids to get a good education. She also told me ‘Never to rely on a man!’ Good advice for all young women. If we can care for ourselves we will always be okay.

If you haven’t met Valerie Francis, then you should. This woman is an absolute firecracker. What a personality! Smart, witty, passionate and an absolute mine of knowledge. One couldn’t ask for a greater advocate for what women can bring to the industry. Her work is so valuable in understanding what has happened, what is happening and how we can improve our industry in the future. You also have to love that she isn’t afraid to tell you the hard truth; that a job in this industry is hard, for men and women. We hope to see a lot more of Valerie in the future. And as we said, if you haven’t met her, then you should!


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