Creating ripples through representation

Social justice advocate Marian Wright Edelman invoked a strong and memorable phrase when describing the power of role models in improving representation: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

There’s a saying in the professional world that suggests you can’t be what you can’t see. For many early career professionals, this can be a barrier to entering certain roles and industries. However, for GHD’s Maritsa Kacopieros, she’s had an inspiring and empowering role model in Lindsey Brown, GHD’s Australian Market Leader – Water.

The two crossed paths early in Kacopieros’ career while volunteering at an Australian Water Association tree-planting day. At the time, Brown was President of the Association’s Victoria Branch, and Kacopieros was looking to network with other water industry professionals having just moved to Melbourne.

“To say I was inspired by Lindsey would be an understatement,” Kacopieros said. “I knew I wanted to be mentored by her.”

Connected by a strong sense of commitment

Throughout their careers, giving back to the community and working with purpose is something that’s connected them both.

“Whether it’s been through our volunteer work with WaterAid or the Australian Water Association, that commitment to making a positive contribution is something that we share,” said Brown.

That commitment is also shared by those working across the water sector, and it was a big reason for Kacopieros joining the industry in the first place.

“The water industry is so special because people have a strong sense of contribution. We all want to serve our communities as best as we can and make the world a better place for future generations,” Kacopieros said.

While Brown’s journey into the water industry was not your typical career path, her experience in the public and private sectors has given her a deep understanding of the positive impact both can have on our communities.

“Having first worked in the Canadian public service and mining industries before moving into water and sustainability roles in Australia, the thing that always guided me was wanting to make a difference. I feel like the water industry is one of the best places to do that,” said Brown.

A close mentoring relationship with mutual benefit

Kacopieros and Brown’s paths crossed again when Brown joined GHD in 2019.

“I was so excited because I had just rejoined GHD a few months prior and was looking forward to actually being able to work with Lindsey,” said Kacopieros.

Since then, the two have had a close relationship which has proved valuable to them both in unique ways.

“Having a female mentor and role model who’s taken a bit of a different pathway and has all these great perspectives has helped me professionally and personally,” Kacopieros said. “I feel like I always take something from my conversations with Lindsey, something I might not have thought of or a different way of framing things which I’ve always found helpful.”

“And it’s a two-way relationship,” Brown adds. “It’s been so valuable for me to talk to Kacopieros about what’s going on in some of the delivery aspects of the business that I’m not as close to anymore or to get a sense of a particular project and how everyone involved is feeling about it.”

Through their career discussions, Brown identified an opportunity for Kacopieros to progress in her career.

“Given my role, I had visibility to some opportunities that were opening in other regions. Knowing Maritsa’s career aspirations, I was able to connect some dots. I could see that for somebody with her drive, passion and skills, this role in Canberra would be a great fit for her, so we talked about that and what it might look like,” said Brown.

Supporting women to have great careers in water

With females only making up about 30 per cent of leadership in the water sector, both Brown and Kacopieros are strong advocates for connecting and supporting women in water, particularly through initiatives like GHD’s STEM Pathways Program for female high-school students and the Women in GHD (WinG) network.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to see how mutually supportive and connected women are across the sector. We’re all very committed to helping women have great careers in water. For many of our young graduates, I know it makes a big difference to see women at different career stages that they can aspire to. We reap a lot of benefit and joy because we have great women in our business who do amazing things,” Brown said.

“As someone trying to figure out if I want to have kids and how I balance that with my career aspirations, it’s been important to have a female role model like Lindsey, who is very transparent about the realities of having a family and a career. It may not always be pretty, and that’s okay,” said Kacopieros.

Sharing experiences a key part of being a role model

Brown said the key is to be real and share your experiences because those are the stories from which other women can draw.

“I’ve had conversations with women about how they want to step up into different roles, but they don’t think they can because they find travel difficult. And I ask them, ‘well, how can the business support you, and what would you need to make that possible?’ That’s what practical accommodation looks like,” she said.

“I remember when I was only five months into my role at GHD and had to travel to a technical conference in New Zealand. My husband was also travelling, so he couldn’t be at home with our kids, and I had a less-than-one-year-old that I couldn’t leave with anyone. I said, ‘I can go, but I need my nanny to come with me because I don’t have childcare for my youngest’. And GHD paid for my nanny’s flight to come with me so I could be a mum without compromising my career,” Brown said.

“People need to feel safe and secure to be able to raise these issues and articulate the kind of support they need from the business,” Kacopieros said. “To hear stories like Lindsey’s shows that you don’t have to choose between your career and your family. GHD is a very family-oriented business that backs people in that way.”

Workplaces leading the way

With targets of 25 per cent female representation in senior leadership roles and 40 per cent in its emerging leaders’ group, GHD has introduced new measures to ensure pay equity, been accredited as a Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace and renewed its annual Career Relaunch Program to welcome people back into the workforce following a career break.

“Our society puts a burden on women that is still yet to be equally shared with our male counterparts. Until that happens, women are disproportionately disadvantaged in their career options, so we need to support women. We must show women they belong, have a place, and can be themselves,” Brown said.

There is an excellent network of women who are lifting each other up and demonstrating that you can have a fulfilling and successful career in the water sector.

This article originally appeared on Inside Water.

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