Robin Priestly remembers what it was like when she decided to forego a career as a child and youth worker and return to the family business to pursue a career in construction.
Now the executive vice-president of Priestly Demolition, based in King, Ont., which she runs with her brother, Priestly described how being a woman onsite, coupled with the fact she was the “boss’s daughter,” had its share of challenges.
“When I went to work in the field, I got heckled,” she said. “I was like a leper. They (workers) didn’t want to talk to me.”
But thanks to the hands-on experience she gained and some strong mentorship, Priestly said she’s grateful to those who helped her along the way and for making the decision to stick with it.
“I drove a machine, I shovelled dirt,” said Priestly.
“I was working at our company’s salvage yard and the manager there, he mentored me. He taught me how to work a forklift, maintain a forklift. We had a shortage of drivers for the delivery trucks, so I went and got my DZ licence.”
Priestly was one of several women leaders who took part in a candid discussion on what it takes to succeed in the male-dominated construction industry at the Canadian Association of Women in Construction’s (CAWIC) recent holiday event.
The Visionary Women in Construction panel was held in Toronto on Jan. 31.
“I think we limit ourselves,” Priestly said.
“I think it’s very important to be strong in this industry. It’s not easy, it’s not for the light-hearted, but if you are interested in it then there is definitely a place for any woman. Don’t say, ‘I’m a woman and I can’t do that.’ That’s an easy way out.”
All of the women on the panel discussed how they got into the field.
Julie Phillips, president of Flat Iron Building Group, is relatively new to the construction industry. She was a business woman specializing in small to medium-sized businesses before taking on a senior management role at a company specializing in commercial office interior design.
“I like growing a business,” said Phillips. “I just want to love what I do, I want to love the people I work with…I want people to feel like they can contribute what their ideas are and how we are going to do things.
“It doesn’t come down to what you studied, what you learned or your ambition, it’s finding a place that you fit with people you want to work with.”
Lora Bourck, co-owner of Artistic Skylight Domes in Vaughan, Ont., a residential and commercial skylight business that she runs with her brothers, said she was a law clerk before she decided to take over the family business.
“My dad had prostate cancer and decided to retire,” said Bourck. “What I did was I dug deep inside myself and said: ‘What is my passion? What is my vision? What are my goals — personally and professionally?’ Every woman in this room should be asking themselves that because that is what is going to drive you to be successful in this industry.”
The women were also asked about the challenges they face.
Phillips said when she first started at Flat Iron, most people who came into the office asked if she was the new secretary.
“It’s not that they are judging you, it’s that there is a 30-year history of assuming that the woman in the office is going to be the secretary,” explained Phillips. “Part of our job as women is you have to be both competent and confident.
“It’s a balance between figuring out what you are competent at, figuring out what you are incompetent at and ask questions about it. You need to learn it quickly, you need to know what you don’t know.”
She admits “managing people who manage people” and the chain of communication within the company has also been a bit of a struggle for her.
Bourck has a vision to take Artistic Skylight Domes global, an idea her brothers are skeptical about.
“My challenge is just getting across to the guys that this is really important,” said Bourck.
“Our world is evolving every day, things are changing, everything is going digital. To keep up we have to be competitive and for us to be competitive with the big players we need to do this.”
Panellists were also asked how they balance work and family life — something women in the industry constantly grapple with.
“For me, it’s getting over the guilty factor of being a working mom,” said Priestly, the mom of two teenage boys. “To balance it all I think you have to decide what you want to be first. If you want to be a career woman or a mother, and figure out how to mix the two.”
Bourck told the audience she follows the three ‘Rs’: reflect, refuel, results.
“For me to refuel I do one thing that’s really important and I think everyone should do this and it’s not exercise,” Bourck stated. “It’s taking the weekend and getting rid of your phone and your laptop. I go to my lake house and I just focus on my family…I come back on Monday recharged.”
She also shared some words of wisdom when it comes to helping other women in the industry.
“Make sure that you guys not only take care of yourselves but take care of the girl beside you,” added Bourck. “Try to embrace us as a team because women try to be too competitive. Don’t compete against each other, be friends, associates, collaborate, network. That’s what is going to make this industry stronger.”