Alison Mirams is remaking the construction industry as a place more welcoming for women.
In May this year, 30 students from Sydney Girls High School visited the construction site of the 29-storey commercial tower for Zurich Financial Services Australia in North Sydney.
Due for completion in 2020, the tower is unlike most in the country — not because of how it is being designed and built, but rather by whom.
The purpose of the site visit was to challenge the students to consider a career in the construction industry.
Leaders from construction company Roberts Pizzarotti, which is charged with building the tower, spoke about how such a project gets off the ground. Architects from FJMT and a structural engineer from Northrop were also there to explain their roles.
What made this group of leaders so exceptional, especially for the construction industry, is that they are all women.
The site visit was arranged by Roberts Pizzarotti CEO, Alison Mirams, who has led the company since its launch in 2017. Mirams has held senior roles at construction giants such as Lendlease and Multiplex throughout her 20-year career.
Mirams is a rarity in an industry where just 17 per cent of workers are women, but she’s taking steps to even up the numbers.
Building a team
A career in the construction industry was an obvious choice for Mirams. Her grandfather was a quantity surveyor who instilled in her father a keen interest in the built environment.
“As they’d walk around the city, he would say to my dad, ‘Look at that building, look at the cranes, look at the materials, look at the detail’,” Mirams said.
“My dad raised my sister and I in exactly the same fashion.”
While her sister went on to study civil engineering, Mirams completed a Bachelor of Building in Construction Economics at University of Technology Sydney.
“I didn’t have the love of physics that my sister did,” she said.
“I went into [construction] to work out the money side of building.”
Although Mirams is not an engineer, she was recently awarded the Engineering Executive (EngExec) postnominal from Engineers Australia, a credential reserved for members who have played a significant role in driving leadership and management as engineering professionals.
Mirams is also helping the engineers she employs to achieve Chartered status.
“The Chartered designation gives my guys and girls recognition of what they’ve achieved in their careers and the study that they have completed,” Mirams said.
“It also gives my clients some comfort that I’ve got the right people looking at their projects.”
Sarah Poggioli, Senior Project Engineer at Roberts Pizzarotti, joined the company earlier this year after more than a decade with her previous employer.
She said becoming a Chartered engineer will give clients more certainty and will be an impressive addition to her resume.
“It also shows that this company is willing to put its money where its mouth is in terms of training and skills development,” she said.
Up for the challenge
Recent defects found in residential buildings in Sydney and Melbourne have placed the construction industry in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
However, Mirams believes challenges existed long before these high-profile cracks appeared.
“The Shergold-Weir report was written the year before Opal [Tower] happened,” she said.
“I agree with everything that’s in the report and anything that makes the industry better is completely welcomed. What I would caution is that the industry becomes over-regulated as a result of two projects.”
An obvious step towards improving the industry, said Mirams, is to make it more welcoming for women.
“I have a passion for having women in construction because I am a female in the industry, but also because there is so much documented proof that if you have more women in your organisation, you will be more successful,” she said.
This became clear when she was a Contracts Manager and Commercial Manager, she said.
“When I walked into a room, I could get a very different outcome by how I interacted,” she said.
“You’d be surprised how far ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ goes and having a logical, sensible discussion, as opposed to a large ego walking into the room and thumping the table.”
Sasha Kovic, Manager New Business at Roberts Pizzarotti, said Mirams’s approach to gender diversity is not about “getting bums on seats”.
“Alison knows that having more women in the industry is good for business,” she said.
“I also know that women in the industry are excellent at what they do because they know that if they’re anything less, they’ll be picked apart.”
Kovic, who is a civil engineer, has worked with Roberts Pizzarotti for just a few months having left the industry due to what she describes as working “brutal long hours and weekends”.
“I knew Alison from my days at Multiplex,” she said.
“I told her that I didn’t want to go back to a site role, so she suggested I work in business development. I’m only three months into the job and I’m loving it.”
Changing the system
Research from the University of New South Wales identified three factors that undermine women’s success in construction: long work hours; sexist attitudes; and little support given to women who wish to return to work after parental leave.
Mirams is working to tackle each of these challenges.
On two Roberts Pizzarotti construction sites that operate on a six-day calendar, the staff work for five days a week. If they work on a Saturday, they get a weekday off. Once a week, they finish at 3 pm.
At its Concord Hospital Redevelopment project, Roberts Pizzarotti staff work Monday to Friday.
“We’ve added 10 weeks of time to our program to cope with not working on a Saturday,” said Mirams.
“If the sub-contractors still do five nine- or 10-hour days, we’ll still get the productivity we need. The success of this will be scientifically analysed and I’m really hoping that it’s extraordinarily successful so that we can change the industry.”
Sexist attitudes are addressed by fostering a culture focused on better ways to build.
“I don’t have people say, ‘No, you can’t’,” Mirams said.
“I’ve got people saying, ‘How do we make it work?’.
Flexible working practices also help to support women returning to work.
Despite policies to attract more women to her company, Mirams said recruiting women to the construction industry is not easy.
However, Roberts Pizzarotti is proof that it can be done.
Its executive team comprises a 50:50 gender split and Mirams instructs recruiters to always send her resumes from women, even if she’s not recruiting at the time.
“I will still interview them,” she said.
Mirams’s commitment to gender diversity ensures she’s driving change across the industry, rather than waiting for it to happen.
“A lot of people want to have working groups and steering committees, but change is glacial,” she said.
“And you know what? I’m not going to wait. I’m happy to show that this is what we’re doing, and this is what we’ve done.”