Articles | People

Women Nailing it in Construction

Monday, 2 December 2019
By Karen Richter

More Kiwi women than ever before are forging careers in the construction sector and forward-thinking organisations such as Winstone Wallboards are supporting the change.

Although still a heavily male-dominated industry, the tide is turning as an increasing number of employers tune into the unique attributes females bring to the sector. In this issue of GIB® News we talk to three inspiring women who are helping shape the industry in positive and proactive ways.


Meet Winstone Wallboards Partnership Manager Clara Sumner

Working in a male dominated industry brings its challenges but according to Clara Sumner, it also dishes up great rewards.

“Back in 1992 when I first started out in construction, females stood out a bit, but now we are seeing a lot more women come through and there's a huge amount of opportunity," she says.

"Females have a slightly different approach, our focus is different, and we tend to shine in areas such as organisation, planning and communication. These are skills that stand you in good stead in the building industry."

Clara has dedicated more than 20 years of her career to Winstone Wallboards, working her way up from a customer service role to become a highly respected professional at the top of her field.

“I’ve become quite ingrained in the industry in Christchurch. When I first started out, people would test me to see if I knew what I was talking about. Once they realised I knew my stuff, the questioning disappeared. You get to a point where respect kicks in and gender becomes less of a conversation.”

Clara’s skills have enabled her to carve a career that’s meaningful and rewarding, including working closely with families impacted by the Christchurch earthquakes.

“It was a very challenging time and I was able to help people work through the process of repairing their homes. I felt like I was really contributing something to the community. That was very special.”

In her current role Clara looks after partnership and sponsorship relationships, oversees the Club GIB® Installers programme, liaises with market influencers and works closely with the rest home segment. She’s also building her leadership, strategic business and developmental planning skills through Fletcher Building’s Leaders’ Edge programme. Of the 22 students participating, Clara is one of just two women. Despite the gender imbalance, she says working in construction is a natural fit. 

“My dad’s a builder so I’d already had a bit of industry exposure before I started out, and I’m quite a practical, hands-on person. I’ve painted lots of houses, done lots of DIY, I’ve even renovated a whole house on my own. I really enjoy it and there’s something about the people in this industry that I’m drawn to. They’re very down to earth and straight forward, they’re salt of the earth people and I like that. 

“We touch a lot of different types of customers through what we do – from stoppers, builders and architects, to group housing companies and homeowners. They’re all quite different but share a common thread, they all have a passion for making a difference in the building sector. It’s very rewarding to be part of that.”


Meet Winstone Wallboards Architectural Specification Manager Dennise Austin

A weekend job at the Home Ideas Centre was an unexpected launchpad to a construction career for Dennise Austin. Fast forward 18 years and she’s now a highly regarded Architectural Specification Manager playing a leading role in a booming industry.

“When I first started out, I was at home with two young children. I had a start-up joinery business and to supplement our income I began working weekends at Wellington’s Home Ideas Centre. I became Centre Manager within six months, gaining exposure to every aspect of construction, which I found interesting and exciting,” says Dennise, who has been with Winstone Wallboards for the last three years.

The construction sector has given Dennise a pathway to connect and make a difference.

“You get to be involved in the buildings people depend on. How many people can point at a building and say, ‘I was involved with that build’? Whether it’s a home, a hospital, a school or a commercial building, they are all important to the people in the community.“You also get to collaborate with a team to provide guidance, overcome obstacles and sometimes fix problems on site. Strong relationships and networks are formed on construction projects because everyone in the team depends on everyone else. It’s all about working together to get the job done.”

Being engaged in the New Zealand construction industry can be challenging without a formal qualification and Dennise is passionate about education. She provides CPD (Continuous Professional Development) presentations and is also studying towards a Diploma in Business Studies and learning Te Reo Maori.

"Getting involved with industry associations also gives you a voice. I am a member of the New Zealand Institute of Building (NZIOB) currently serving on the Central Region Committee as chair, and a member of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) including being a judge for this year's NAWIC excellence awards.

NAWIC is a support network for women working in the construction industry. Founded in Texas in 1952, its reach has spread across the globe as more and more women opt to work in the sector. Active in New Zealand since 1996, NAWIC encourages women to forge successful construction careers – and Dennise is a strong advocate.

“Hard hats and hammers are not the only opportunities in the construction industry. If a woman wants to swing a hammer, there is no reason she can’t do it just as well as a man - but women considering their career options should know that the construction industry presents lots of opportunities, from engineering and design, to project management and trades. Technology is an additional field of study that provides new opportunities for both young women and men of various backgrounds.”


Meet Winstone Wallboards Technical Advisor Jennifer Haraki

Jennifer Haraki has always been a trailblazer. She was the first female Fletcher Challenge cadet, the first female Regional Services Manager for Master Builders, and the first female Quantity Surveyor. She even had a stint as the first female Project Supervisor for Keith Hay Homes.

Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s now passionate about applying her considerable skills to building momentum behind Maori housing. 

One of the first apprentices in the Fletcher Challenge - Residential cadetship schemes, Jennifer credits what she learned there with helping her form a formidable work ethic, and a sharpened attitude to “get the bl**dy job done”.

Hailing from Murupara, she grew up doing what all locals did to keep the community running, by getting work done with good old fashioned “hard yakka”. She went away to study at Polytech, but it wasn’t until Jennifer hit the bright lights of Auckland in 1986 to join the freshly minted Fletcher Challenge cadet programme that she realised her drive to be hands-on and trained-up was unusual for women in the industry.

“The definition of ‘being female’ in construction never crossed my mind and didn’t seem to be important as I did my training,” she says. “I was really keen. I’d get to work early in the morning, before the bosses, and would be there well after they left. Any time I had I was getting out with the guys, building houses, digging, laying foundations, putting rooves up – you name it, I did it. 

“After that I went from Fletcher Residential building houses and maintenance, to working at (now defunct) Neil’s Timber as a pre-cut estimator. That’s where things really started to change.”

Jennifer went on to complete her Advanced Trade Certificate in Carpentry and a Quantity Surveyor Cadetship, becoming a highly competent architectural draftsperson, running projects, and processing plans and inspections for council. After many years away, she returned to the Urewera to help her mum build a new house on Maori land.

“By that time, I had experience working with and for council, preparing plans, building and inspecting houses. I was like ‘oh easy – I’ll just get the plan together, put it in to council, and you’re done!’.”

How wrong she was; “It’s such a complex process, and the level of bureaucracy and admin is tough going. If someone wanted to hand me the job of sorting out Maori housing, I’d do it. I even told Minister Nanaia Mahuta that! A house is so much more than four walls, it’s a home and a place for family. We did get the job done for mum though, and I took what I’d learned to run a build for Oraeroa Marae Health Clinic Waikato and when it was opened, it even featured on TV!”

Today, after almost 40 years in the construction sector, Jennifer is still sharing her knowledge and expertise as an integral, and invaluable, member of the GIB® Technical Team.