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Survive and thrive

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Despite the complexities of working in a male-dominated building sector, two women – one working in the steel reinforcement industry and the other running a construction business – have seen a positive shift. Photo courtesy McHugh Steel

Kerryn Ramsey

Content Writer

In Australia, the underrepresentation of women working in the male-dominated building industry continues to affect gender equality, industry performance and our nation’s economy, according to a study by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) 2013, titled Women in male-dominated industries: A toolkit of strategies. 

The report shows that in Australia’s general workforce, women represent almost 46 per cent of employees. However, in the construction industry, women account for only around 12 per cent of employees respectively.

However, times are changing with many women in this field now experiencing a level playing field in the workplace. ‘A number of leaders in male-dominated industries, both here in Australia and overseas, have recognised the underutilised pool of talent that women represent,’ said Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner of AHRC. ‘They have taken commendable and highly effective steps to change their organisational cultures in ways that both attract female employees and help them to thrive.’

It’s clear that women in the building industry are achieving great success at all levels. It’s also exciting to see women joining the industry both at the start of their career journey and sustaining their career in the industry. They are building new businesses and showing more women how rewarding a career in building can be.

Peita Mitchell
After starting her job as a factory operator in the steel reinforcement industry eight months ago, Peita Mitchell is one of the few females in Australia to take on this role.

‘It’s definitely a hard industry to get into because there’s still a tiny bit of stigma around being a woman,’ says 26-year-old Peita, who works for Ausreo Pty Ltd in Gregory Hills in southwest Sydney. 

Her job involves building loads for house slabs and putting together mesh, trench mesh and accessories ready for delivery. ‘My first challenge was using an overhead crane. My dad’s a truck driver by trade so I’ve been around machines, forklifts and cranes but lifting steel loads did scare me at first. Now I’m using it every day. On average, around 12 deliveries a day are sent to various building sites. I have to build those loads for each delivery – around 1.5 tonne each.’

Peita Mitchell
Peita Mitchell (right) with her team, Joseph Bishay, Brenton Summers, Zac Stojanovski, Adam Talia, Rebecca Ferrer and Jade Spinks

Peita has found that new customers are often surprised to see a woman in the factory. ‘It’s actually nice to get such a welcome from them. I feel part of the industry and one of a team now. My colleagues are more than willing to teach me how to do things and get me ready to potentially move up and take on more roles.’ 

So, should women be nervous about joining a male-dominated industry? ‘If you’re keen, just do it,’ says Peita. ‘Honestly, there are plenty of employers in the industry who are there to support what you want to do.’

When asked if Peita has faced any discrimination at work, her response is strangely empowering. ‘I might get the occasional “Is that a bit too heavy for you?” from clients, but I just turn around and says, “No, it’s fine.” And by that stage, I’ve already picked it up and walking towards them. Women can do anything they want. And I’m evidence of that, you know.’

Sonja Pressler-McHugh
Although Sonja Pressler-McHugh has been running her construction business with her husband for nearly 15 years, she still gets a thrill when their trucks roll out. ‘They’re loaded with high-quality manufactured sheds and building products to a myriad of customers,’ says Sonja, whose business, McHugh Steel, fully manufactures steel rollform products.

‘I love knowing customers are receiving a great product, and am delighted when we get repeat orders. I head up a thriving business with great people and I can say with pride, “We built that”.’

Sonja Pressler-McHugh
Sonja with Gillian Tulk, Belinda Doherty, Caitlyn Butler, Emma Pressler-McHugh, Demi Pressler-McHugh and Emma Findlay
Sonja and husband Rob started in the construction industry in 2005 with Sheds For You, marketing sheds and relocatables. She has been the CEO of McHugh Steel for 12 years and has overseen the company’s growth, which is based in Bundaberg, Queensland. Starting with just one employee, McHugh Steel now manages 65 employees and numerous sub-contractor gangs. 

Sonja’s proud to say that McHugh Steel has no glass ceiling. The board of directors has equal diversity – two women and two men. ‘Admin and sales are heavily geared to female employment,’ she says. ‘I find women are great decision-makers due, in part, to their vulnerability in life. Their sound decisions give me confidence to trust their integrity, diligence and recommendations. We have women working on machines and we readily employ them knowing they have a good work ethic.’

As an HIA Building Women member, Sonja was also a finalist for the Building Women Awards last year. ‘For an industry dominated by males, uncovering the benefits that women can contribute to the building industry is pure gold,’ she says. ‘HIA Building Women unearths this treasure to the benefit of all.’

Networking opportunities

HIA Building Women supports women working in the residential building industry. Upcoming events include:

• ACT: HIA Building Women’s Luncheon in Canberra on 13 August. Join Michelle Heyman, Australian soccer player and commentator who’s passionate about sharing her story.

• NSW: HIA–Alinta Energy Building Women Luncheon in Sydney on 24 September. Meet Mia Freedman, co-founder of Mamamia Media Group – Australia, and Rebel Talbert, who became NSW RFS’s first female Assistant Commissioner.

• SA: HIA–Cosentino Building Women Luncheon & Building Women Awards in Adelaide on 24 September. Hear from Australian entrepreneur Lisa Messenger, CEO of Collective Hub who has produced more than 400 custom published books.

• TAS: HIA Building Women’s Breakfast in Launceston on 2 December. Guest speaker is Dr Susan Alberti, a businesswoman, philanthropist, women’s football pioneer and 2018 Victorian of the Year.

For more information and upcoming events in all states, visit www.hia.com.au/buildingwomen