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Driving change in the construction industry – Lisa Martello

For HKA infrastructure delivery director and National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) board director Lisa Martello, a career in project management has fuelled her desire to be the change she wants to see in the construction industry

In the construction industry, machinery operators and site surveyors are usually the most visible on a site, but a large-scale project won’t come together without a manager at the helm.

Having built a career in the UK and Australia within construction project management, focused mainly on rail transport, Lisa Martello is using her position to advocate for women and for minority inclusion within the industry as well as for more empathetic and supportive leadership.

“Project management is my passion; it’s always been the job that I loved,” Martello says.

It was a bid writing temp role for security company G4S that first grabbed her interest in seeing how projects were planned and put together, leading her to project management schemes and a role with Transport for London.

“I love to write, so I really enjoyed that job with G4S in putting together all the content on how we would win different jobs, but then I would never get to manage the job after we won it. I thought, ‘that sounded like such a cool project, I wish I could have been involved in that’, so ended up looking for those jobs.”

With Transport for London, Lisa managed and supported mid-tunnel ventilation projects for the Cooling the Tube department, modernisation projects for stations such as Marble Arch, track replacement works, and preparatory works for the London 2012 Olympics. More recently, she led two major sections of the Melbourne Airport Rail project as a Package Director with Metro Trains Melbourne. However, when asked if it was the huge scale of city transport infrastructure and seeing a project come together that was the main appeal, Martello says it’s actually the people side of the industry that she finds the most interesting.

“It doesn’t matter how big a build is – the thing I love the most about my job is understanding the interactions of the people involved, and I’ve had so many great experiences in construction and met so many amazing, inspiring, fabulous people,” Martello says.

“Often successes and failures on major construction projects can come down to the particular personalities and behaviours of the people involved. For me, I’ve always found major projects to be a hotbed of interesting, fascinating and sometimes quite disruptive human interactions and I love to understand those and try and be the kind of leader that brings out the best in people.”

Lisa Martello is using her position to advocate for women and for minority inclusion within construction

Industry representation

As a mixed-race young woman at the beginning of her career, Martello says that Transport for London was a welcoming and inclusive start to the world of infrastructure projects. However, as she made her way up the ranks over the years, the lack of representation became increasingly pronounced.

“I felt more and more the odd one out as I became more senior,” she says.

“I would often be the only woman in a room of 15 men and the only person of colour. And I know so many amazing women, ready for leadership roles, and all they need is an opportunity. Which raises the question: why aren’t they in the room?”

Although female representation at higher levels is important, she adds that anybody can be a role model for great leadership, mentorship and sponsorship behaviours and inspire women to join and want to stay in the industry.

“My mentor is a man called David Steward and I met him when I was just 22,” she says.

“When I met him, I remember thinking, I want to do my job like you when I’m older, because he is calm under pressure, kind, approachable and he gets results. There are people, and not just women, who can show amazing inclusive leadership styles, and they effectively bridge that gap and make women feel like they can get to those heights. So, although representation is important, it’s not just what you look like, it’s how you behave.”

When asked what challenges she has seen facing women in her position, particularly with regards to remaining in the industry long-term, Martello says that there is a range of commonly-cited reasons, such as a lack of flexibility around work hours and inadequate facilities, but for her the key issue she has experienced, and always hears about from her female colleagues, is having to deal with the cumulative effect of microaggressions in the workplace.

Martello has looked to support change through working with advocacy groups like Professional Migrant Women

“If I think of every moment I’ve had in my career where I’ve thought ‘I’m done– construction is no longer for me’, it has always been because of microaggressions – the accumulation of negative instances where you are treated just a little bit differently,” she says.

“For me, that might be (so-called) casual racism, or that extra scrutiny applied to your skills, point of view or response. Or people not listening to what you say or being undermined by your colleagues, or you try to report something and are labelled as emotional or oversensitive. You could work with people for years and it can sometimes still feel as if you haven’t ‘proven yourself’ yet.

“It’s that behaviour that makes us want to move to another company or industry where we can just get on with our job and have the chance to reach our full potential.

“So, what I’m trying to do, is lead the change I want to see without sugarcoating the real issues women and other minorities face in the construction industry. Rather than toxic positivity, what I knew I always needed was for someone to say ‘this isn’t okay and we don’t have to put up with it’.

After a while of feeling like I was waiting for someone to encourage me or give me money – I decided to just go ahead and do it. I created what I needed to see and hoped it would be useful to others too.”

The results were an anti-racism podcast called All Hands on Deck and a LinkedIn and Instagram account called Catching_Bees.

The latter, Catching_Bees, is growing in momentum and followers, and aims to shine a light on what good looks like in the workplace, call out problematic behaviour with tips and tools and share theoretical and practical insights on trends and norms within the construction industry and beyond.

Named after a sexual harassment experience Martello had earlier in her career, Catching_Bees has created the catharsis she needed for herself and wanted to provide for others.

“I now receive a lot of messages from women in construction and other industries sharing their stories, hopes and concerns,” she says.

“They say that they were looking for the same thing I was and that I’ve helped them have the confidence to stand up for themselves, advocate for others or resign and go somewhere better – to an organisation that values their contribution. That is more than enough thanks for me.”

Martello is using her position to be the change she wants to see

NAWIC

As part of her drive to foster change, Martello also became a professional mentor for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and nominated herself to join NAWIC as an elected board director.

She has since founded and become the chair of NAWIC’s Diversity and Inclusion Portfolio, which works with organisations such as Friends with Dignity, JNINE and Women of Colour Australia to break down barriers and create opportunities for the least represented and most disadvantaged women in construction.

“I joined NAWIC wanting to fly the flag for people of colour, for minorities, for that intersectional diversity that often is just adding layers of hardship onto an already hard time,” Martello says.

“I’ve got a passionate committee of 13 people spread all across Australia and we work on initiatives such as storytelling, inclusion toolkits, events, scholarships and partnerships, as well as key deliverables such as the NAWIC Reconciliation Action Plan – a topic never more important for Australia than in this moment.

“At the end of the day, I believe everybody needs to do the little bit they can to support the change they want to see, and the change we need for the construction industry,” she says.

“That’s my philosophy on most things – just do something! If every one of us did one small thing a day to support what we genuinely believe in around diversity, inclusion and equity, we would absolutely crack this thing because then everyone’s part of the solution.”

Martello’s career has included involvement in a variety of large-scale rail transport projects in the UK and Australia

HKA

Martello is excited to work for HKA and it was no accident. Not only does it speak to her project management specialism, but it also meets her exacting standards when it comes to diversity, inclusion and leadership ethos, she says.

HKA is a leading global consultancy in risk mitigation and dispute resolution and specialises in providing independent, tailored solutions for complex projects. While the company has a long track record of involvement with some of Australia’s largest projects, HKA consultants and advisors work closely with clients on projects of all sizes and natures – from small non-profit organisations to government departments and from some of Australia’s largest companies to boutique firms.

“HKA is a values-driven, forward-thinking organisation committed to diversity and inclusion and the development of their people,” she says.

“I did a lot of research and investigation before I approached them! I looked at their Glassdoor score – a glowing 4.5) – their diversity stats – 34 per cent female, 15 per cent CALD, eight per cent neurodiverse, four per cent LGBTQIA+ – their website, news articles and I spoke to some people I know that work there.

“I want this industry to make space for great people from diverse backgrounds, and to hire and reward inclusive leaders who lead by example on attitude, behaviours and integrity. We need to get stuff done, and keep people safe, happy and healthy along the way.”

So what now?

“Well, actions for everyone – that’s the project manager way,” she says.

For more information on NAWIC’s upcoming events and activities, visit: nawic.com.au

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