Top sector women recognised – By Iain MacIntyre
New Zealand’s outstanding women in construction have been acknowledged in the third annual Hays National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Excellence Awards held at Auckland’s Aotea Centre in August.
Among notable winners were Beca senior mechanical engineer Vikki Stephens and Water NZ (Stantec) project management and commercial leader Steph McLeod
(joint winners of the new Rising Star Award), Solid Earth director Verena Maeder (Tradeswoman of the Year) and Klein Architects owner and managing
director Rachael Rush (Professional Woman of the Year).
Ms Stephens says it was “really warming” to have her hard work and efforts acknowledged. Asked what personal attributes she felt might have contributed
to the achievement, she highlights communication skills and a willingness to take up opportunities when they present, often having to step up a level
to take these on. “Also, I care for the people in my team and I care about the project I’m working on,” she says.
Beca senior mechanical engineer Vikki Stephens
Prior to becoming a qualified mechanical engineer and progressing to her current role, Ms Stephens’ introduction to the engineering world came in the
form of summer internships on a building site and then with her ultimate employers, Beca.
“I was drawn in at an engineering careers day – particularly sold on the practicalities of it. I remember being really impressed by the base isolators
at Wellington Hospital,” she notes. “I enjoyed maths and science at school and this was a way I could continue doing these things. I have always been
interested in how things work and why. I also have an uncle who is an engineer, who encouraged my career path whenever he had the chance!”
Ms Stephens lists working with people from all parts of the industry (clients, consultants, constructors and others) and the variety of work, as well as
being able to design things that become a reality “and that people use on a daily basis” as highlights of her profession.
Having noted the “impressive achievements” of other winners, Ms McLeod of Water NZ (Stantec) says she is very humbled. “I believe that my win came down
to having amazing mentors, as well as working for Stantec, a company that is prepared to trust and support me whilst taking me out of my comfort zone
and constantly challenging me,” she says. “I also like to lead by example and love to roll up my sleeves and jump in when required.”
After graduating from Canterbury University, Ms McLeod worked for Duffill Watts in Dunedin as a geologist/environmental scientist and evolved into what
she describes as the ‘natural fit’ of project management.
Stantec project management and commercial leader Steph McLeod
“I then started project managing some of their waste-to-energy plants, largely in Asia. Later, I moved to MWH New Zealand, now Stantec New Zealand,
as a dedicated project manager in energy and industry with a large focus on water conveyance and dams/hydropower,” she explains.
“At Stantec I have been fortunate enough to experience a wide variety of projects and work my way through to my current role. I am responsible for the
commercial success of our projects, from conception through to delivery, ensuring their financial success and teaching our project teams commercial
acumen. I continue to manage a portfolio of my own projects to ensure I remain up to speed with the challenges and issues our teams face.”
During her formative years, Ms McLeod recollects that her father and grandfather “were always renovating houses, building fences and laying patios. I am
quite sure it was their encouragement to be involved, even if it was just to pass them tools, which spurred my interest in the design and construction
industry. Through them I found that I enjoyed the process of planning and building structures, as well as overcoming challenges and problems,” she
“My father has a mechanical background and my mother accounting, but neither put pressure on me to pursue a specific career. They were very honest with
respect to strengths and weaknesses and encouraged me to pursue a career that suited my skills and passion.
“I love that no two jobs are generally the same, yet you can apply previous learnings to current project challenges; the learning never stops. It is also
great to see a site come to life through each stage of the project, right up until completion,” she adds.
“In my current role I am fortunate enough to share experiences and lessons learnt with project teams at the initial planning stage. Helping them with risk
mitigation and proactive planning is rewarding, as is assisting them to work through a challenging time or situation and see them all the stronger
Tradeswoman of the Year Verena Maeder of Solid Earth says having worked for so long in such a specialised and unconventional field of expertise – earth-building
– she never thought she would gain mainstream recognition for her work. “I think the fact that what I do is a bit exotic helped draw attention, but
ultimately it was my achievements that made me take out the award,” she reflects.
Solid Earth director Verena Maeder
“I have been involved in over 100 building projects, I train people, I am contributing to relevant R&D and revising building standards with
MBIE, and I have had my own successful business for 15 years. While I am not the only earth-building business in the country, I currently run the
only commercial adobe (mud) brick production yard in the country.”
Having studied in architecture and earning a diploma in building biology and ecology (BBE) in Switzerland, Ms Maeder describes herself as an “earth-building
artisan with 25-plus years’ experience”. A self-taught solid plasterer and brick/block layer, she has extensive experience in restoring historic earth-buildings.
Her introduction to the industry was somewhat of a chance path. “I fell in love with earth-building when I was 16 and visited my first building made from
adobe blocks in Nelson. I was on a student exchange from Switzerland at the time. I moved to New Zealand in 2002 to take on an existing business and
develop it according to things I had learned in Europe,” she says.
“I love the diversity of my work and working with the amazingly versatile natural materials. I love having a positive environmental impact, creating healthy
dry homes and making things that are timelessly beautiful.”
Rachael Rush of Klein quips that she has “two wonderful colleagues to blame” for winning the Professional Woman of the Year award. “They decided it was
a good idea to nominate me and only let me in on it right at the last minute,” she says.
“I suspect the award reflects my leadership role as managing director of Klein Architects and our recognised industry success over the last few years on
some major hospital projects, including Property Council excellence awards for Middlemore Hospital’s $100 million clinical services building and the
$200 million Burwood Hospital redevelopment among others,” she notes.
Klein Architects owner and managing director
“We get great satisfaction from a successful outcome for our clients and are proud of our achievements, so it is nice to have our contribution
recognised by others.”
Involved in the architecture and construction industry since graduating from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Architecture (Hons) in 1993,
Ms Rush started as a graduate architect with Peddle Thorp Aitken in Auckland. “I was fortunate, due to some unique circumstances, to be thrown in the
deep end early and learnt a huge amount from Brian Aitken, achieving my professional registration as an architect in 1996,” she says.
“I had a couple of valuable years with Auckland practice Architectus before joining Klein Architects in 1999. It was this move that led to my introduction
to the architecture of health and retirement facilities, and ultimately a passion and commitment to the pursuit of excellence in health care design
in New Zealand.”
Ms Rush reflects that she chose architecture relatively late in the piece, after having completed the first year of her arts degree at the University of
Auckland. “I suspect I didn’t think about doing it earlier because I didn’t think I had enough maths and science to do architecture. But doing well
in my first year at university (including in maths) gave me the confidence to apply.”
She credits her mother as her greatest inspiration. “She was passionate about design, although never had the opportunities that I had. My parents designed
and built our house in the 1970s when I was just a baby, so that was a big influence as I grew up,” she says.
“As a child, I always loved making things. I was fortunate enough to live next to my grandparents’ large property and orchard which was filled with sheds,
rusty old cars and trees to climb in and around, so I spent a lot of time in my childhood building huts!
“One of the things I love about practising architecture in my specialist field of health is the amazing people that we connect with. Some of the most rewarding
projects that we’ve been involved with are in mental health, designing for people at their lowest and most vulnerable. To see the dedication, care,
respect and commitment of the people who work in mental health is such an insight. It is a privilege to work with them to create better environments
for healing, despite the complexity and challenges involved.”
Taking an holistic view of the construction sector, Ms Stephens believes the industry needs to continue to adapt for women to grow in it. “There still
appears to be a limited number of female leaders within the industry as a whole, despite graduates entering companies at a 50/50 male-to-female ratio.
Personally, I’m not sure how consistently flexible the industry is in areas such as parental leave or if gender bias still exists. But I do feel more
could be done to make the most of our talented female and male engineers.”
Ms McLeod says she has been fortunate to have had some strong and influential women as managers, mentors and senior leaders during her career. “I am all
about the ‘right person right role’ mantra and believe that if you have the skills and interest in a field, you should be encouraged to do what you
love as life is too short not to. I am hopeful that when the next generation start planning their careers, we won’t need to encourage women specifically
into careers in engineering, science and technology as people will pursue the role they enjoy doing.”
Ms Rush fondly recalls growing up in a house of four girls with a very supportive and uniquely progressive father. “I have always been of the opinion that
girls can do anything. I am really pleased that more women are entering the construction industry. It was a real highlight of the NAWIC awards evening
hearing the stories from other women finalists in their various roles across the sector.”
Ms Maeder would like to see more women take up building trades. “I am happy to have worked with many open-minded male builders and have developed a sense
of humour to deal with occasional sexism. In the end, I gain respect because of the quality of my work. I educate building professionals through my
work, opening up their horizons to eco building and seeing the benefit of having gender balance on building sites.”
Looking to the future
Looking ahead, Ms Maeder expects to continue expanding the consultancy and teaching side of her business and will be commencing her first build abroad
in Chile in January next year. “I would love to travel with my work and bring further innovations back to New Zealand. Also, working on more historic
buildings is on the cards,” she says.
Ms Stephens is soon set to travel and is planning to work in Europe for a few years before returning to New Zealand, possibly via Singapore. “I’m passionate
about energy efficiency and I love the collaborative design process – intertwining engineering with architecture. My expectation is that Europe will
provide the opportunity for larger projects that set new benchmarks,” she says. “I also intend to improve – even if it’s just a little bit – the gender
diversity representation within the industry.”
Identifying water security as “one of the many challenges my generation will face”, Ms McLeod is interested in investigating what innovative solutions
New Zealand can bring to the market to protect our water sources and supplies. “I am also excited about the opportunities that being a part of Stantec
will bring to both us as an internal team, and to our clients and the infrastructure community.”
Noting that we live in a complex and changing world, Mr Rush suspects the future practice of architecture will not be immune from the impacts of such influences.
“The construction industry is a great industry to be involved in, but has some major challenges. My aspirations are to keep in front of that change
professionally and lead our passionate and dedicated team to embrace opportunities for change and innovation in the health and retirement living environments,
and bring the best of international research in these fields to our New Zealand projects and clients while building some really great buildings!”
Iain MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport and infrastructure issues within New Zealand