After nine years of working for one of Australia’s largest construction companies, Dominique Gill decided that if the boys’ club wasn’t going to make the changes that she considered necessary for the industry to join the 21st century, then she would just have to be the driver of change herself.
Dominique recognised there was an opportunity in the market to develop a more approachable and collaborative take on the building; one that she could create by tapping into a seriously underutilised reservoir of talent.
Establishing Urban Fitouts & Construction in 2016, she set out to forge a company with diversity as its cornerstone, creating opportunities for women who may have been discouraged by the blokey culture of the broader construction industry.
“While I really enjoyed working for a big construction corporation and I learned a great deal during that time, there were a number of things I found frustrating that I didn’t feel I was really empowered to change. It’s one of those cases where you kind of have to do things a certain way because of how the company’s set up,” explains Dominique.
High on Dominique’s list of things to change was the public’s warped perception of all builders as gruff, macho stereotypes, which could have a cooling effect on potential clients’ willingness to enquire after her company’s services. She found this notion that builders tended to be unapproachable and poor communicators went hand in hand with addressing the considerable anxiety clients could experience when trying to keep track of the money going into a project.
For Dominique, transparency was key to addressing these issues and laying a foundation of trust with her customers: “In my experience from talking with clients, everyone’s had a bad experience with a builder somewhere. You get a lot of people saying that working with builders was a nightmare and we didn’t know where our money was going. So, it was crucial to instigate more transparency in terms of our pricing. And by combining this with the approachability that comes from having almost 50 per cent of my company staffed by women, it’s easier to establish a sense of comfort through that balance.”
While finding the female candidates to strike said balance hasn’t always been easy – male candidates for any given position still greatly outnumber female ones – Dominique’s partnership with Randstad has enabled her to dig deeper into the talent pool and grow her company in ways that align with her original vision.
People ask me, what sort of policies are you implementing to increase diversity at Urban Fitouts. Well, that was the whole purpose of the company,” says Dominique. “I obviously receive a lot of applications from men, and I’ve employed loads of men over the years. But if I can, I try to work with my consultant at Randstad to search a little bit harder until we can find a woman to fill a role where possible. Because there are women out there that are extremely talented and completely suited to do what we do. You just have to find them.
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Despite her dedication to providing these opportunities for women, Dominique doesn’t believe quotas are the best way to counter men’s dominance in construction. She feels they can unjustly undermine the legitimacy of even the most qualified woman by inviting people to wonder whether they’re just there to fill the quota.
Instead, Dominique believes a more grassroots approach is needed: “By reaching out to the next generation, whether girls at school or university students weighing up their career options, the industry can attract a whole new wave of female employees. It’s a natural way of encouraging them to take on that career path.”
That’s not to say the construction industry can afford to wait around for the next round of female university graduates to enter the workforce and consider the job done. Dominique knows there’s a lot of progress left to be made, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, which she was disappointed to see hitting women in her industry harder than the men.
“Look, I think the industry is getting better overall,” she says. “But I do think we saw a step back during COVID. I feel the burden of home-schooling fell on women more than it did on men.
Despite this, Dominique feels the industry is coming around to her way of thinking and starting to see women in construction as the asset they so clearly are. Looking ahead, she believes the future of women in construction is assured: “At the end of the day, a diverse team is always more collaborative and more profitable. And after all, we’d be completely nuts not to ask half of the available talent pool to join us, wouldn’t we?”
“A lot of the progress women had made in pushing their careers forward and equalising the share of housework slipped somewhat in the last year or so, which is disappointing. But I think now that we’re reopening, it’s time to get back to where we were and even further along. Because while there have certainly been advancements for women, I think we should be advancing faster.”