Kimberley Wilkinson is a leader in the Australian construction industry. Construction is Australia’s third largest employer and is also the most-male dominated industry sector. These current statistics reflect the traditional gender-led career paths for school leavers of Kimberley’s generation.
When Kimberley was at secondary school, the number of girls taking high-level maths, science and engineering subjects exceeded the number of boys, and yet despite their skills, young women weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in engineering.
Kimberley is now a project director at La Trobe University and is managing multiple construction projects valued at over $160 million. One major project to be completed in early 2019 is the Bendigo Campus Engineering and Technology building which includes one floor dedicated to the Bendigo Tech School.
“Like many of the girls who were excelling in mathematics and science subjects, I was led to consider medicine as a career,” says Kimberley.
“The teachers never considered engineering or other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based fields for young women back then.”
Becoming a doctor was not an option for Kimberley as she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But deeper than that fear was her innate love for the built environment.
“I was always building with Lego or Meccano and helping my dad with woodwork projects. I would hang out with Dad as much as I could because I loved being with him and I loved creating projects with him. We were so similar, and we always got along so well.”
Propelled by her passion for building, Kimberley was 13 when she decided she wanted to pursue architecture.
“Architecture made sense because I was good at both art and science,” she reflects.
“I am glad now that art and science are taught and practiced together. These bodies of knowledge need to be together and not taught in an insulated way. Science and art complement each other.”
Even after spending time with her dad at his construction site where he worked seven days a week, Kimberley never met any women in the industry. Fortunately, she had a career advisor at school who suggested she consider building and construction as a university preference, as a pathway to architecture.
After gaining entry to the property and construction ‘building’ course at the University of Melbourne, Kimberley discovered she hated the architecture subjects and loved construction and engineering-based ones.
“I found that my brain was more of a builder than an architect.”
Fresh out of university, her first assignment was with John Holland. Aside from the site secretary, Kimberley was the only female on a site with 300 men.
“I was 20, and that was a big eye opener for me at that age.”
It was a time of radical transformation for Kimberley and the construction industry, coming to grips with increased female presence on building sites, and discovering a need to provide things as simple as separate male and female toilets. Kimberley recalls they had to modify a male toilet for her to use.
As a young woman, she took a leadership role on the construction site, backed by her site project manager and mentor. He got her out of the office, where she was ‘pigeon holed’, to write scopes of work and draft contracts.
“He let me run my own show and supervise the tradies. He helped me navigate this industry and helped me understand what I wanted and where I needed to go,” says Kimberley.
“You need to be a certain sort of person to survive and thrive in construction; you need to have a thick skin and a good sense of humour.”
Kimberley has continued the tradition of mentoring in construction by mentoring young women in their final year of construction management.
“When I mentor I am not precious. I guide my mentorees with where they would like to get to in their career and how to get there. I know that if they get on and do their job, and if they do it well, they will get recognised.
“It is important for young women to get strong industry connections and explore career paths within STEM.”
An average day for Kimberley involves answering multiple phone calls and up to 200 emails.
“People might describe my attitude as a bit ‘short’ but I have to be ‘short’. My way of managing time is all about efficiency; I delegate to people.”
Kimberley has mastered the “art of making things happen”, describing herself as a persuader.
“I can present an argument and get people on board with what is happening. It is such an important skill, especially when you are working with different users of a building who may have competing interests.
“Most people can’t understand building plans, so a lot of what I do is explaining what is and isn’t possible and managing timeframes and expectations. Coming up with plan B is important too.
“I would go insane if I worked in an office with the same task day in, day out. I love the challenge, and I love solving problems and learning something new every day.”
As a single mum of three children, including a set of twins, Kimberley is excited for their future.
“I support my children in their interests, rather than what is expected of them because of their gender,” she says.
“I am especially excited to see what opportunities my daughters are presented with and embrace in their futures, and what my son can achieve to support women in his chosen field.”
This article was first published in OAK Magazine Issue 5 (2018)