Coffey Testing: Creating a place for women in construction

Material testing is one of the most male-dominant sectors in the civil construction space. Roads & Infrastructure speaks to five women working in leadership positions at Coffey Testing, including Chief Executive Officer Dawn Watt, about how the company is bucking the trend.

When Dawn Watt graduated from Lethbridge College in Alberta, Canada with an Associate’s Degree in Civil Engineering nearly 24 years ago, she was one of only three female students graduating that year from a class of 33.

Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer of Coffey Testing, one of Australia’s largest and oldest material testing companies. But, as she observes, little has changed in the way of female representation in the industry since she started her career.

“The civil construction space is still very much male-dominated. Within the large Australian material testing companies, ours is the only one with a female CEO. We also have a number of women in leadership and technical positions within our team, which is not a very common trend in the industry,” she tells Roads & Infrastructure.

The reason for low representation of women, she believes, should be sought at grassroot educational levels.

“Traditionally, labouring and construction is not targeted at females in high school. So, when females at high school are working out what they want to do in the future, I don’t believe that enough emphasis is placed on those careers that have traditionally been for men,” she says.

“Females are not only under-represented in the university engineering degrees, but they are also less likely to take up vocational technology or civil construction courses such as those offered by TAFE. Even when we advertise for an entry level position where no experience is required, for every one female applicant we get around 30 male applicants applying for the position.”

Creating inclusivity

As a leading material testing company with a presence in construction, mining and civil infrastructure projects in almost every corner of the country, Coffey Testing is trying to break the stigma that the field of material testing is unsuitable for women.

“There are no limits to how far women can progress their career with Coffey Testing. We currently have a female Lab Manager who oversees Coffey’s two permanent laboratories and three temporary project- based laboratories across Queensland,” says Watt.

Watt’s own career journey has taken her through various roles within Coffey Testing, from starting out as a Concrete Field Technician, to becoming Clean Lab Manager, Product and Development Manager, and Operations Manager. In 2016, Watt became Coffey Testing’s General Manager following the parent company’s acquisition by American company Tetra Tech. But Watt and a team of senior managers were offered a partial buyout and in 2019 Watt was appointed Coffey Testing’s CEO. This year, the management team purchased the remaining shares from Tetra Tech, making Coffey Testing a 100 per cent Australian owned business.

“Coffey was founded by geotechnical engineer David Coffey in 1958. Of the six businesses originally represented by the Coffey brand, Coffey Testing is the only one retaining the Coffey name and logo and we are very proud of that,” explains Watt. Whenever she can, Watt takes the opportunity to share her passion for civil engineering and material testing with aspiring students, particularly the female students.

“I think we should let our females know that material testing is not just about carrying big buckets of sample. So, whenever I talk to students at career expos or giving speeches at my sons’ school, I focus more on the scientific aspect of the job and why we are doing these tasks, why is it important to that high-rise building that the concrete is the right specification, or what a particular soil test means for the durability and longevity of the roads we build,” she says.

“Coffey Testing also ensures that as a business we participate in International Women’s Day, highlighting our females and the careers that we offer.”

Watt’s message to other business leaders and company managers is to help enlighten the younger generation about the wide array of possibilities within the civil construction industry. This, she says, should be followed by consideration for flexible work arrangements and possibilities for career progression.

“One thing we have found is that a lot of males are more casual and therefore more transient, whereas female employees tend to be more permanent, and as such we always make sure they are included as much as possible in our training programs for progression in technical and management careers. This may mean providing some flexibility around project sites and working rosters.”

Proactive support from management

Dani Guest has worked with Coffey Testing in different capacities since 2012, currently serving as National Human Resources Manager. She says resolving the issue of gender imbalance within the construction industry requires proactive support from the management teams.

“Gender imbalance in the construction industry is so deeply engrained that to move towards a gender-balance sector is no small task. Often construction can be inflexible in regard to working arrangements and position duties due to the nature of the industry,” Guest points out.

“Unfortunately, saying they support gender diversity is as far as it goes for majority of companies. To really mobilise change to the gender imbalance in the industry, I think a specific and tailored approach needs to be taken to not only attract women to the industry but to also proactively provide pathways for women to progress into management or leadership positions.”

Heading in the right direction

Coffey Testing’s Marketing Manager Tari Rahman adds that the ‘learned gender roles’ which have developed over the decades have contributed to the gender bias present in the construction industry today.

“We are definitely heading in the right direction though,” she points out. There are a growing number of campaigns and training programs encouraging females to give the construction industry a go. It will take time, but these female-focussed campaigns and programs are a great way to help balance gender in the industry, making women feel more comfortable to enter the industry,” she says.

“The construction worker stereotype and the general male culture of the industry is starting to shift and while there is still work to do, it is becoming more common to see females on a job site. I am proud to work for a company that has a high female representation in leadership roles as well as a growing number of females in technical positions.”

Importance of role models

Amy Ryan has worked with Coffey Testing for over 19 years, starting fresh out of school to join the company as a Junior Administration Assistant. Today, she holds the position of Chief Administrative Officer for Coffey Testing, overseeing and providing daily support of the operations of the organisation.

Ryan says, over the past 19 years, she has seen change happening slowly within the industry.

“When I began my career at Coffey Testing, I was not even aware that construction materials testing existed. It was not commonly advertised as an option for women at school when they were searching for a career. Presence of females within

the workplace was low, and very rarely did women even apply for the open positions,” she recalls.

“Over my 19 years, I have seen a change, and it’s no longer a shock to see women within the industry, including many now that hold leadership roles. I believe the more prominent women feature in advertisements and marketing for construction, and the more construction options are presented at schools and forums, the more women we will see with successful careers within the industry.”

Need to challenge the norms

Suze Garas, Coffey Testing’s Chief People and Compliance Officer, is directly involved with workforce attraction and retention as part of her role leading the People and Performance team. She says several barriers have resulted in low representation of women within the construction industry, including informal recruitment practices that tend to attract males, a lack of female role models in leadership positions, limited career progression for women and often an innately masculine culture.

“To encourage a more gender-balanced sector, the construction industry needs to reposition itself as an accessible career for both women and men by reviewing current recruitment practices and promoting itself as an aspirational career. We need more diverse role models and champions to promote gender equality and help create an inclusive work environment where women feel comfortable,” she says.

“Many of the current norms that have been accepted for years need to be challenged and problematic work cultures addressed to help engage and retain woman and provide more progression opportunities. Schools and educational programs need to highlight the value of construction jobs for women so that young females can see a career is possible within this industry.”

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