Transcript Pt1: Series 4, International Women's Day Special, EP2: David Cummins talks with Althea Papinczak

Thursday, May 04, 2023 15:30 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

David Cummins: G'day and welcome to the AHDC podcast series, Health Design on the Go.

The Australian Health Design Council would like to thank the One Hundred Percent Project for allowing us to share their podcast with WIDAC.

WIDAC is Women in Design and Construction, which was founded a few years ago by Erin Oxley and Althea Papinczak, who started to work together at SHAPE a few years ago and discovered there had to be a better networking opportunity for women in the design and construction industry.

We look forward to listening to this interview as part of our Women's Health Series to celebrate . International Women's Day.

This interview occurred last year, but we found it so inspirational and so important, especially on International Women's Day that would like to share it with you.

Thank you to the One Hundred Percent Project, and thank you to WIDAC.

Hi, I'm David Cummins from the One Hundred Percent Project. In this series of podcast, we'll be discussing gender diversity within the construction industry and how it has impacted the industry. We'll also be investigating the steps necessary for making improvements for gender equality in the future.

 Althea Papinczak and Erin Oxley started to work together at SHAPE a few years ago. Both women started attending several networking events in the Brisbane area and were left a little dissatisfied with the offerings of the day. They were both looking for a networking group that was more welcoming, comfortable, and genuine, where the speakers were open, honest, and relatable, encouraging others to do the same.

Then in 2016 with no experience hosting a networking event, they got the ball rolling together with a few of their colleagues and friends and had the first WIDAC networking event with great success.

Since then, WIDAC has become a national brand helping provide a safe, inclusive, and respectful area for networking, empowering women to share their experiences from a design and construction industry.

WIDAC (Women In Design And Construction) aims to encourage the future generations of this industry to network and collabourate through a relaxed, informal, and genuine environment for all.

In the last few years, WIDAC has gone from strength to strength, even during Covid, where they have been able to hold monthly events, expand their organisation to include blogs, job boards, and mentorship programs, and educational scholarships.

The One Hundred Percent Project welcome Althea to our first construction series, to a look at gender diversity and equality within the industry and the impact it has to both women and men. Welcome Althea, how are you?

Althea Papinczak: Good, how are you David? Thanks for having me.

David Cummins: That's okay. Thanks for your time. I know you're busy.

I know you've got family and your job and your other job and this, I know you're quite busy, so we really do appreciate your time.

Can you tell us a little bit about. And the career path to date and how you've ended up being the founder of Australia's largest network for women in design in the construction industry?

Althea Papinczak: Yeah, it was a bit of a funny one, and we do often refer to it as our accidental business. I guess for myself, I've done fit out and construction for around 15 years now, stumbled upon it a long time ago when I was just looking for coordination, administration type role, ended up in construction and just absolutely loving it and getting the bug for it and working my way up.

And then I'd done retail and hospitality fit out for quite a while before making the change over to the commercial side. And it was about then when I went over to commercial and realised that I needed to go out and meet the different people in the commercial space.

So I didn't know who the consultants were that we would be working with and I needed to go out and meet clients and I needed to build that network in the commercial space.

And when I started going to some different networking events, like you said, it was just very informal or really expensive or, I wasn't connecting with the right kind of people that I was wanting to meet with and there wasn't anything in Brisbane at the time that really met my needs.

So I decided one day I went home to my husband and I said, "babe, I think I'm going to start a networking group". And he's like, "okay, great. Go for it! You've got my full support".

And our first networking event was 20 women in a pub, and they all loved it. They're like, "when's your next one"? That was just, really, really inspiring and genuine because we had some speakers get up who were both very candid in the stories that they shared.

And I think that set the tone for it and when they said "are you going to have another one"? Erin and I looked at each other, because she'd come along to the first one to help me out, and we were like, "I guess we are". And so it just. It really snowballed from there. And Brisbane grew very, very quickly. It was 20 and then it was 50, then it was 70, then it was a hundred, then it was 150.

And then Sydney came onboard about a year and a half after that. And then Melbourne came on board maybe another year after that. And since then we've had all the other states, we've done some roadshow events in each.

So it's been a really big rollercoaster ride, but I think looking back, Erin and I are really glad that every time the business was asking us to commit to it and help it grow that we did because we do both work.

We've always worked, still full-time in our construction jobs, while trying to manage the business on the side, but we're really passionate about it and we just love it. So whatever we can do to keep it going and keep seeing it grow and reach more people is what we'd love to do.

David Cummins: It absolutely is amazing.

I do remember reading a book the Julie Goard Women in Leadership book, and one of her life lessons for younger generations was about networking, and she said she wished she started networking earlier in her career and had more political contacts.

Do you feel that it's helped with your career as a whole and that your members have found the benefits as well in their careers?

Althea Papinczak: Yeah, definitely. And I think for me, when I decided to start going and doing networking, I wasn't very good at it. I was young and I was shy, and I either take a friend and stand in the corner and talk to my friend and get nothing out of it. But when I decided to go on my own and push myself and go and have those kind of moments where you walk up to a group of strangers and introduce yourself.

I think everyone realises very quickly we're all in the same boat. It doesn't come naturally to a lot of people, but it's that effort that you put in. That's the effort that's going to give you huge returns. Like for me, the number of people that I've met that I've either worked with or then gone on to be mentored by or helped find mentors for, or had just really great work relationships.

Or you can pick up the phone and ask them if you're on a project and you have a really technical question and you're not sure what the answer is. So your network also helps you in really surprising ways. When I finished at my kind of long-term job last year and then decided to make the leap into something new, I reached out and had phone calls with about 10 different people in my network.

And it's always just that kind of advice and that support that they're going to give you and those introductions that they might give you. So I think networking's a really valuable thing, and I honestly couldn't say that I would be where I am today if I hadn't had this amazing network that I've probably spent a good part of five years building.

So yeah, definitely the younger you can start doing it, the more confidence it's going to give you as well as you progress in your carreer.

David Cummins: There's another really good book called The Luck Factor, and there's a lot of research to show the benefits of luck where people actually do go out on their own and be more independent and actually speak to strangers versus the same people all the time.

So I think you're living proof of that, so well done. I've been to a few of your events and they are amazing. I've also been to a few that were not as amazing. You guys have survived at least, what is it? 5, 6, 7 years now?

Althea Papinczak: Five years in December? Yeah. Yeah.

David Cummins: So what do you think's been the secret to your success, knowing that so many have tried and failed in that space before, especially in the construction industry. And even more importantly, in a event dedicated to women, a lot of them that were around five, seven years ago, not around now. So what do you think is the secret to your success?

Althea Papinczak: I think a lot of it, and it sounds really cliche, but it's so driven by what members want to come and see at our events.

When I stood up there on the first day at our first networking event and said, "right, this is a networking group and I want to know from all of you, if you come back, what you'd like to hear about, what you'd like to learn about, what you'd like to see". And so every topic that we've ever covered has come from someone in our community, in our . Network.

One of our members saying, "I'd love if you could do a workshop on acoustic, I'd love you to cover the road to leadership and how I can eventually move into a executive type leadership role. And I'd love to come to an event on building code basics or mechanical masterclass".

So everything that we've done in terms of topics and content and the workshop series that we started, and then the mentoring program has been suggestions from the people who come to our events.

And so that's, I guess why the content's always remained really relevant because it's what's needed in the industry, it's what people want to go and learn about and what to see. And I think we've been very careful to make sure that our speakers, that we select for our events, are literally just people like you and me in their careers.

We don't have a lot of professional speakers and we don't have a lot of really senior speakers. I'd say that we try and get a really good mix of juniors all the way through to those kind of senior level roles, but it just means that there's the ability for anyone in the audience to connect and hear from people in the same circumstances, them as to the challenges and the different things and the different things that they've seen work for them at different stages of their career.

So I think that's why it's always been quite successful in that it feels very approachable, feels very real and authentic because it is, it's not professional speakers, it's people like you and I working in the design construction related industry, sharing their stories and experiences in a really candid way.

David Cummins: Yeah, I agree, I also found, I went to one that was about domestic violence and also about how to speak to your boss about having children as well. So I do find there's a lot of topics that would traditionally have been taboo where you wouldn't actually talk to on an open forum. But there was this huge thirst from the audience to hear about these stories that no one had talked about before.

And I remember in one of them, you were talking about approaching your manager about the fact that you were about to have children, and there was a huge gasp in the audience where a lot of them were saying, "I would never do that". So I do think you also break down a lot of barriers and it gives a lot of women are empowerment to know that there are things that they've thought about but no one's actually talked about in public, really.

Althea Papinczak: Yeah, it's a really tough one, and we try and never shy away from those sorts of topics, but we do make sure that we do them in a really practical and positive way.

We've never been at the networking group where we're there to whinge and complain about the things that we're struggling with. It's more of a conversation where it's a really open and candid conversation and you can share the struggles and you can share the challenges.

But we always want to know what we can do together or what we can do as individuals to kind of overcome those sorts of things. And the one that you're talking about, I think this baby-proofing your career, and that all came from a personal struggle of mine.

I had a really great relationship with my general manager at the time, and I said to him, "look, I'm going to start a family and I expect that I'm going to be pregnant really quickly, so FYI should probably start putting that on your radar for next year when I'm knocked up and I'm outta here".

But then for me, I had a really, really tough battle with IVF for two years, two really hard for years of IVF to actually get pregnant, and I'd shared that really candidly and really openly with everyone in my workplace. And he supported me the whole way and they supported me the whole way. And I've even shared that with probably thousands of people in the WIDAC Community.

There would be events where I'd be standing up there just so broken, crying to the audience going, yesterday was another failed IVF round for me, but being able to kind of share for me has always been very cathartic, and I understand that it's not for everyone, but we try and really build that into our events where if you are brave enough and you do want to share, this is the place to do it, this is the safe space to do it.

Because there's topics that we've covered before, like it's not only around having children, but going in for a promotion or a pay rise, like that's such a daunting conversation for a lot of people and they really struggle with it. And so we've done quite a few events on it, how to ask for what you're worth, and it's getting them prepped on the practical tips.

Being like, well, if that you're going to get really nervous in there and you're going to shy away from that money conversation, write it down on paper, have it ready to go in there with you. Have your bullet points, have the reasons why you're deserving so that you are not going to get flustered. You're not going to choke up, you're going to be able to talk about what you want and what you need and advocate for yourself and know that you're prepared for that conversation.

And I think people really appreciate the genuine nature of the conversations that we have because like you said, they're sometimes not workplace appropriate for some people. They don't like to talk about that sort of stuff at work.

So this is hopefully a space where we can do that outside of work, fit in the right forum with the right people.

David Cummins: I think to actually hear someone talk about in public where you can actually relate to someone as opposed to behind closed corridors. I think it, I think the more you normalise it, because it is a difficult journey for a lot of people, so why not do it and, and even to speak to your manager saying, "this is what I'm going to do",

I think a manager should respect that because he is future-proofing your career and your position and he's de-risking his work. So there's a lot of benefits to it, just not the norm. And I do think you guys are doing that. We are creating these norms, which is fantastic as well for your community.

Althea Papinczak: Yeah, thanks. And that was my thought process. I thought if I told him and I didn't like the way that that conversation went, I wouldn't want to get pregnant in a workplace where I knew that it was going to be a rough ride or it wasn't going to be supported. And I've always been probably a little bit too hard on sleeve and a bit too open and honest.

That's just who I am. I'm a very open book, but I think for me, honesty has always been the best policy and has always worked for me. So we try and really make sure that that's the same sort of messaging in our events.

David Cummins: Yeah

Althea Papinczak: To share your struggles and to open up, because vulnerability I think is a really underestimated strength to be able to be vulnerable and connect with people in that way, you'll find that people will just rush to you and offer their help and their support, and it's actually a lot easier when you feel like you have that support network and that team around you, no matter if it's IVF or if it's talking about the promotion that you're going for or bouncing it off some different people in the industry, whatever it is, it's always better if you've got that kind of input from others.

David Cummins: Yeah. Speaking about the construction industry, I know you have reported many times to a lot of people that you haven't had too many troubles in the construction industry based on your gender. I've been in the construction industry for 14 years, and personally I have as well, but also I have seen it as well with women in the construction industry.

Do you think maybe that vulnerability you bring and that honesty that you bring is one of the reasons why you probably haven't had as much challenges, or do you think there's other reasons.

Why would you say you're in the minority then?

Althea Papinczak: I was having a really interesting conversation about this with someone the other day I was talking to a friend of mine who's a project manager and she was sexually assaulted by someone that she was working with and she started that whole kind of blame game against herself going, I thought that I'd stand up for myself, I thought that I'd be different, I thought that I would be able to go to the police and tell them, and I said to her, "you never know what's going to happen to you in those moments where someone is making you feel really vulnerable in attacking you".

Whether it's emotional abuse or whether it was, in her instance, it was a physical attack that she went through. I think for me, the reason that I'm maybe in the minority of women who have struggled in some way in the construction industry with either bias or maybe being held back or not getting the opportunities or maybe being spoken to inappropriately, is that I've maybe got a very strong persona that people read and go, "she wouldn't tolerate it".

And I haven't.

I had a boss in a previous job say to me, "Althea, that tops really distracting, I can't have a conversation with you. You need to go away and put a jacket on". And I said, "don't you dare speak to me like that, I have no problem dragging in a HR right now and see if they think my top is inappropriate".

And so that kind of stopped that conversation there. And then I never had that kind of inference from him again, that he would be inappropriate and speak to me in that way.

But I think a lot of people in that same position, if they had someone speak to them like that, who didn't have the confidence maybe would react very differently and probably in some ways feel embarrassed and ashamed and responsible for what had gone on.

And so that's how it happens. It's really hard. I don't think there are a lot of people with that same kind of attitude and outward confidence that I have to call out, things like that. And maybe a lot more junior staff would think that that would put them in a worse position, calling out something like that.

And so I do understand it's a really tricky one, but I think maybe, the only way to tackle those sorts of things is really reaching out to the people around you and having a conversation about it.

If something's happened to you and you don't feel like you have the voice, at least share it with a few people so that they can give you the support that you need and they can have the conversation with you and maybe they can give you some ideas on how to deal with it if you are not able to.

I hope that kind of answers the question. It's a really tricky one.

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