I was there at the start and connections continue

I was one of the first members of the National Association of Women, which has grown from strength to strength. This article appeared in the organisation’s 20 anniversary magazine.

I was there at the start and connections continue

By Deborah Singerman

I do not remember how I found out about the first New South Wales NAWIC meeting but I do know I was there. The National Association of Women in Construction sounded grand, up there with the professional institutes and associations I heard from as an editor and journalist within the building and construction industry.

The agenda arrived, on thick, ribbed cream paper, with an ambitious agenda of over 30 items, including membership logos, corporate sponsorship, media, volunteers, board of directors. It was 31 May 1995, 6 pm at Mallesons Stephen Jacques in the heart of the CBD. Construction lawyer, Paula Gerber Jones, fresh from her stint at NAWIC Los Angeles, spearheaded things. The room was full of women of all ages and I have to admit, I was also impressed by the plush carpet of a leading corporate law firm and those floor-to-ceiling windows with their magnificent harbour views.

We all try to do our bit. Over the next few years I interviewed a number of women for the NSW newsletter, about their work, their work-life balance and their hopes. Architect Stephanie Smith worked at the Renzo Piano studio and was particularly impressed by the style of the Italians where women can be as feminine as they like and still be taken seriously as accomplished designers.

Planner Julie Bindon decided early on that she did not want to be what she called a ‘kitchen consultant’ and that she needed premises. “I believe that women should trust their instincts, have faith in their abilities, follow their heart, give it a go and seek to maximise their potential whatever that is. I don’t think you can measure it in terms of sitting on boards of corporates at all. I think corporates are becoming dinosaurs, the real energy and activity is going on in the small-and-medium enterprise centres.”

Now that is a topic still ripe for continuing debate. As is the soul-searching

from writer, reviewer, academic and columnist Elizabeth Farrelly, wary of positive discrimination (“It seems to me that it’s essentially patronising. It’s saying succeeding as a woman is not the same thing as succeeding – period”) and yet reluctantly recognising that “women still think, am I going to spend this hour working or am I going to get the house ready because we have some people coming round tonight. I don’t know of any man who’d sacrifice the first for the second whereas I know that every woman would at least think twice about it. And it is such a shame. I don’t want to believe that, but I do now. And I think to deny that is to deny reality. So can we work with that as a given nature and make something of it that is valued by society?”

I also wrote about the portrayal of women in building product catalogues and trade magazines in the late 1990s, especially within shower advertisements with women wrapped in red towels or their red fingernails caressing the sides of baths, or even a young mother clutching her baby and smiling beatifically at a dishwasher.

It is less blatant these days though shower ads are still a great excuse to show female flesh, usually neck and shoulders. Still, there is less need to feel we belong to the National Association of Bimbos in Construction, as I complained back then. Images are more varied and perhaps, one day, it might become de rigeur to wear both hard hat and evening gown (or glitzy trouser suit) at a NAWIC Awards night, juxtaposing fashion and safety in a leap, metaphorically at least, from traditional stereotypes while still respecting “the qualities that women in our industry need to succeed – qualities such as teamwork and tenacity, collaboration and creativity,” as 2014 NSW Chapter President, Sarah Hogan, said.

I have been to NAWIC Christmas parties, debates, sustainability, workplace design and finance talks, success series talks and on several site tours, where developers and contractors no longer raise eyebrows at women asking searching technical questions but moving on from the early days, expect that level of question.

I have been a journalist, writer, editor, proof reader, interviewer, picture researcher, managing editor, consulting editor (of several books with nation in their title – a big word but one that does hold true to the impact this industry has on Australia), columnist, blogger and sundry others. I am still fascinated by the political, economic, social, design, technical, sustainability, place making, architecture and creativity tentacles of this varied and newsworthy industry. Working with different building professionals, businesses, academics, and publishing clients, helps me run my own writing and editing consultancy. A few years ago I completed a Master of Arts (Australian Studies), which included research into the work of Australian architects in Asia.

I am still struck by the range of education, technology, personality, and practical-to-conceptual skill involved in any building. I am also aware that the different skills command different rates of pay. NAWIC’s membership is diverse – architects, engineers, contractors, project managers, business development managers, construction lawyers, contract administrators, urban planners, editors, journalists, communicators and marketers.

It is important to have such an industry group. NAWIC is a part of ongoing and still vital moves towards a more inclusive industry. We need to empower ourselves so that we can continue to empower the industry, to strive for the full and equitable participation of women at all levels, board, CEO and the fantastic range of other important jobs, and to being part of a community pursuing changes that we can be proud of and that reflect the industry’s diversity of gender, work, commitment and overall contribution.