Photo courtesy of Probuild Constructions.
When Sarah Cuscadden finished high school she was handed a golden ticket: a full sports scholarship to Melbourne’s RMIT. Despite the lure of a fully paid education in a field in which she loved, Sarah surprised everyone – including herself – when she said no. It was a bold move that would come to define her career in Australia’s construction industry.
Today, Sarah is the Group Manager Health Safety and Environmental at Probuild Constructions, a $2 billion-a-year construction company in Melbourne. With seven years in her current role and six previously with Multiplex, Sarah boasts 13 years and counting in the world of construction safety. For an industry that is typically considered a ‘boys club’, Sarah says she has loved it since day one. In fact, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
A Job to Help People, Every Day
“What I liked about the construction industry was that you could touch and feel what you were doing,” says Sarah. Every day felt satisfying as she was able to enjoy the fruits of her labour with not only beautiful buildings, but safe and healthy staff. This, she says, is the ultimate reward.
Health and safety is about making sure people go home safely.
“It’s an industry based on people,” says Sarah, “so you’re working with people all day, every day. Health and safety is about making sure people go home safely.”
It was the protective, proactive nature of the role that drew her towards construction health and safety in the first place. After turning down her sports scholarship, Sarah initially studied occupational therapy before realising that her passion was not in recovery, but prevention. She switched degrees, and during her final year gained work experience at Multiplex. She was immediately excited about what she saw.
“My four weeks flew by, and I thought – I’m really enjoying this, I don’t want to finish!” recalls Sarah. It was then she knew she had found a career she loved.
Thriving in a Male-Dominated Industry
After requesting with Multiplex that she could be kept on once the placement wrapped up, Sarah was granted a role on a ‘high profile, high risk’ job with the Melbourne Convention Center. It was during this time she became more aware of the masculine energy that dominated the industry.
“I started on the job with Multiplex and there was a safety committee full of unions, men yelling and screaming at each other, and I was like – geez! Not really using my risk assessment skills here…definitely using the consultation skills!” laughs Sarah. It was rough and ready, with regular moments of awkwardness as she came up against an overwhelmingly male environment.
I started on the job with Multiplex and there was a safety committee full of unions, men yelling and screaming at each other, and I was like – geez!
It’s a situation that has remained fairly unchanged since she started out in the early 2000’s. In March, the Australia Bureau of Statistics reported that men still made up 88% of the Australian construction industry. Unlike many other fields, where women have seen a dramatic rise in participation in recent decades, the construction industry seems to be moving more slowly.
The Construction Industry Stigma
Sarah says that this could be due to the lack of visible female role models in the industry.
“How many female CEOs are there of building companies? How many project managers and site managers? That’s a real deterrent because it’s not like there are many posters of women [in construction] anywhere,” she points out.
Sarah recalls some of her early visits to work sites, where it would be muddy, messy, and there was “pornography everywhere!” The tough outdoor working conditions were hardly a turn-off for Sarah, but nonetheless are a part of the job that she recognises may turn some women away.
“A construction site isn’t glamorous,” Sarah explains. “When you’re pouring concrete with your safety boots on up at level 72, and it’s cold and raining… this is the worst-case scenario, but it’s still a reality.”
Female Mentors Supporting Female Workers
Sarah didn’t enter the construction industry with rose coloured glasses. Her mother had a career with Workcover Australia (who handle employee compensation for accidents in the workplace) since Sarah was a child, introducing her to the realities of the construction industry from an early age. It was surely the presence of a strong female role model who worked in – and enjoyed! – the industry that acted as Sarah’s initial boost of confidence.
It is the role of female mentors in the construction industry, therefore, that Sarah believes are a crucial area of investment. Whilst she is firm that women should have both male and female mentors, she holds the women who have helped in her career in high regard.
If it wasn’t for another woman organising that, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“I was very, very fortunate to get my work experience at Multiplex,” says Sarah. “But if it wasn’t for another woman organising that, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
At ProBuild, mentorship is a big focus. They actively participate in the ‘500 Women in Property’ program, run by the Property Council of Australia, which sees younger female members of the industry paired up with senior leaders. Through the program they are invited to events, improve their network, and are given invaluable access to female-to-female advice. The presence of senior female confidentes in her work life has been precious, says Sarah.
“When you’re having one of those terrible days, you can pick up the phone to someone you can vent to,” says Sarah, “and they help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Still after 15 years I’m doing that every other day, asking for advice or support.”
The Power of Having Tough Conversations
When it comes to the future of women in the construction industry, Sarah looks to what she calls the ‘grass roots’ — students. The talent pool for recruitment, she points out, will remain slim if there isn’t ongoing education for students around the incredibly exciting opportunities that exist for women in construction.
Don’t let anyone beat you or drive you out of the industry. Have the tough conversations.
Early intervention aside, her advice for those entering the field is simple: be brave.
“Don’t let anyone beat you or drive you out of the industry,” she says. “Have the tough conversations.”
Sarah says that whilst she hates the fact that women have to often initiate these ‘tough conversations’ around sexism or exclusion, it’s crucial that we do so in order to keep improving the state of gender equality in the industry.
“At the end of the day, I enjoy the self-reflection where I can say – ‘I’m really glad I had that conversation today’,” she says.
“And even if I didn’t get the outcome that I wanted, I’ve made someone aware of their behaviour, and the influence they have on the industry.”