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Special on International Women’s Day 2021

Women have a vital role in the built environment industry

The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge. By removing gender bias and inequality, we can build greater inclusivity as we tackle the urgent crises of our time. Women have the skills and aptitude to thrive in what is traditionally a male-dominated field. In a week-long social media campaign on Surbana Jurong’s LinkedIn page, staff from across the Group tell us their struggles and how they #choosetochallenge for #iwd2021. Enjoy and share!

Mr Wong Heang Fine

Group CEO, Surbana Jurong Group and Member, Corporate Advisory Board of the World Green Building Council

“The built environment industry is changing from a male-dominated to a more inclusive one, with women joining the ranks of engineers, architects and other specialists across the value chain. In my experience, women possess a natural empathy and the collaborative skills to take on urgent challenges. These include driving the green building agenda and creating sustainable solutions to address climate change.

Building a gender-equal world is a challenge I choose, because women play an essential role in deciding our planet’s future.”

Always learning to shape cities that inspire

Ms Nina Yang

CEO, SJ CityGlobal

As CEO Surbana Jurong CityGlobal, Ms Nina Yang handles development management services, from the initiation and visioning of a project, upholding shareholder’s interest over the development cycle to crystallising value and handing over completed assets. 

She is familiar with complex private sector driven developments as well as government-to-government collaborations in new urban centres outside Singapore. The projects under her charge currently include an airport city in China and a township in Vietnam. More recently, [email protected], the world’s first purpose-built short-stay facility designed to support recovery of economic activities and safe business exchanges, is yet another of her projects.

She firmly believes that women are limited only by their boldness to defy any limitation she set on herself. For herself, she sees her role as not just growing new business ventures, as in her present role but also to shape a greater good. 

The desire to learn new things is what drives Ms Yang. She has also boldly embraced change, moving from architecture to development management in the past 20 years. In 2000, when she was still working as an architect, Ms Yang realised that she had to acquire capability and experience in urban planning in order to expand overseas with the practice she was with then. She received a master’s degree in Design Studies in Real Estate Finance and Urban Development from Harvard University on a government sponsorship. 

Since then, she has spent some 20 years studying the China market, including two stationed in Shanghai. She has also executed numerous projects in Dubai, Vietnam, Myanmar and other countries. She moved into environmental planning with water sensitive urban design, and also managed investment portfolio in townships and industrial parks. Notable projects she oversaw included the Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City, Sino-Singapore Chengdu Innovation Park and Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. “Having worked from both designer and investor perspective, the challenge is often transforming financial goals and stakeholders’ visions into inspiring city plan and architecture.” she said. 

“Translating multiple economic, social and environmental aspirations into spaces for people is what keeps my adrenaline pumping. No two projects are the same. The learning journey is the most fulfilling as it revalidates one’s passion with professional growth and this is what I hope to share this.”

Working for a more diverse, inclusive design profession

Ms Adele Rankin 

Managing Principal, B+H Architects Vancouver Studio

Ms Adele Rankin has worked in B+H for over 10 years and in the industry for over 20 years. Until her current appointment recently, she was principal at CHIL Interior Design, the hospitality and residential design studio of B+H. 

Her appointment as Managing Principal of the firm’s Vancouver Studio came as a surprise, Ms Rankin said. “Not because I didn’t think I wasn’t right for the role, but because of my age, gender and experience as an interior designer — the feeling that I wasn’t exactly the obvious choice was something I had been unconsciously conditioned to believe. But if we are to see real moves towards structural change in the industry, it’s time we look beyond the obvious choice and be bold.”

Ms Rankin still leads the CHIL team. In 2016, when she helped to officially launch the Hong Kong CHIL studio, it was a steep learning curve which drove home the importance of representation in the design process and the design team, she said. “Only then can we produce thoughtful design that is more than just an interpretation of culture but an understanding of it.”

Across the organisation, B+H has a 50/50 split of female and male staff. B+H has made strides in fostering a culture that attracts and elevates diverse talent but the work continues.

For Ms Rankin, she feels it’s important to encourage an inclusive work culture by leading by example. “There is a lot I still don’t know, and I am comfortable to admit my blind spots and seek help. I encourage my team to do the same,” she said, adding that her collaborative approach which has given her a unique set of skills in communication and relationship-building. 

“Designers today must prioritise workplaces that are inclusive,” she said. “It’s a powerful recruitment tool and the onus is on leadership to encourage work-styles that support this paradigm shift.” Read more

Commanding respect with resilience

Ms Ivy Koh Chin Wern

Senior Principal Architect, SJ Architecture

Ms Ivy Koh enjoyed doodling as a child and chanced upon Architecture when it came to choosing courses at university. It was a perfect fit. Over seven years with Surbana Jurong, the Senior Principal Architect has worked as the lead architect for award-winning redesign of Temasek Shophouse for modern use. She is also the lead architect for [email protected] as well as Surbana Jurong Campus project in Cleantech Park.

Although the built environment in Singapore is associated with men, Ms Koh said, women had also contributed, traditionally. “Have people forgotten samsui women? These were fiercely independent migrant women who left families behind in China in the 1930s to come to Singapore to work as construction workers to send money home, and it is they who built the Singapore of today,” she said. “Samsui women have shown and proven to the industry that women can be equally capable in contributing the built environment of their times.”

That is why she has been able to hold her own in challenging situations. “I find it interesting that I am often the single female in the room,” she shared, “And as the architect, I hold the authority to make certain decisions. We still need to prove our capability and professionalism and earn the respect in the room. Once respect is earned, we can command our role more effectively.”

In recent years, however, she said, the industry has become more sophisticated and now involves all kinds of professional expertise. “I believe women can bring a good balance to the industry as we often have a different perspective of issues. We can bring new solutions to the table. Construction and design are iterative and meticulous processes for which one need to be spend a lot of time to think through the details. Women can bring more care in this area.”

She advised aspiring female architects to be realistic about industry expectations when they #choosetochallenge. “The industry is demanding,” she said. “Construction is a 24/7 work and sometimes we may be called in any time when required. If you want to join the industry, do not be deterred, follow your heart and you will find strength.”

Better access to safe and clean water for a fairer society Ms Evelyne Mziray 

Civil and Water Resources Engineer, SMEC Tanzania

Inspired by her father who is a borehole driller, Ms Evelyne Mziray chose to be a Water Engineer because the work deals with urgent issues scarcity of safe and clean water for her community, and she believes engineers can change the world for the better.

She has enjoyed her job in Tanzania, where she has been for six years. “I get to learn new subjects such as environmental management, flooding, climate change, catchment management which are very useful for a water resources engineer,” she said. “SMEC is also challenging inequality through enabling employees’ professional growth and driving a more equitable and supportive culture across the organisation.”

In choosing to advocate for greater gender equality, Ms Mziray wants to “help to create a fairer society and make a positive difference to people’s work lives.”

A whole new frontier with digital skills

Ms Lina Monica Ali

Executive BIM Manager, Surbana Jurong

When Ms Lina Monica Ali was growing up, she spent hours playing LEGO. “Joining the construction industry is like a personal calling,” said the Executive BIM Manager of Surbana Jurong. 

Though she does not work onsite and construct buildings, she oversees the use of technology by architects and engineers at the Surbana Jurong headquarters. This affinity with digital tools has arisen from her previous experience as a draftsperson, assistant engineer and project coordinator over 20 years. 

“I see myself as an advocate for digital innovations for the betterment of work and the quality of life,” she said. “I provide technical support, training and Building information Modelling and Management consultancy to any colleague who needs it.”

For her, the digital innovations have simply opened up bigger vistas for her imagination – and levelled the playing field for all. She gets to tinker around to make things better and deploy cool gadgetry. “Now that you have drones to scan the worksite, wear VR goggles to remotely inspect the works onsite while in the office, direct robots to do the heavy works,” she said excitedly. “You can’t say the work is so ‘dangerous’ or ‘dirty’ or ‘heavy’ that only a man can do it.”

Looking back, she is much happier than when she was new in the industry and faced prejudice and even endured harassment as a woman. She said: “There were times when I wanted to quit but eventually, I taught myself to cope better should I face a similar situation again. In time, I saw a shift towards a more accepting and inclusive treatment of women, and it is now easier for women to work in the construction industry.”

“Women have no excuse letting themselves be pigeonholed by the construction industry,” said Ms Lina. “Don’t be afraid if you have the interest, the capability and the guts, go for what you want to do. No skills? no worries! There are always plenty of courses out there and advocates like me you can count on!”

A civilising force that brings progress

Er Yarp Sue Ann

Civil and Structural Engineer (C&S), KTP Consultants

Er Yarp Sue Ann, an engineer with  KTP Consultants for nine years, was commended by the Singapore Ministry of Law for her work in the redesign of the former Red Dot Traffic Building, built during the British colonial period, into the Maxwell Chambers Suites, a global dispute resolution chamber. She was the project lead structural engineer, handling civil and structural design work and site issues, coordinating with the project team to ensure the deliverables were met on time. 

Ms Yarp proudly believes a Civil Engineer brings progress to society. “I chose to be in civil engineering as I feel it is very related to our day-to-day lives, dealing with roads, tunnels, bridges, canals, buildings,” she said. “Civil engineering is the core driver of the engine of civilisation. Our design and infrastructure improves the world.”

She sees the construction industry as one in which women can thrive because it is about problem solving, learning and collaboration. “Everything you do in construction progresses from a small idea or design,” she said, “It is a result of people of all expertise gathering and working towards big goals as a team. Throughout the process, they learn from each other and achieve together.”

Being “the rose among the thorns” has its pluses, she said with a laugh, when people are initially surprised to see a woman engineer on a project. “I would like to change perceptions as it is wrong to think women cannot handle the work. Engineering is not physically intensive but requires lots of patience and meticulousness. Most of the men I work with are very gentlemanly. Whatever our gender is, what ultimately matters is that clients, stakeholders trust us because of our professional competence.”

Driven to create positive impact

Ms Alyse Phillips 

Team Leader, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, SMEC (Australia) 

Ms Alyse Phillips recently joined SMEC as Team Leader, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement. The Communication and Stakeholder Engagement team are passionate communicators who work with clients on high profile and challenging planning, energy, resource and infrastructure projects with a commitment to achieving excellent outcomes.

Based in Sydney, Australia, Ms Phillips said she was drawn to work in Communications and Stakeholder Engagement by “a passion for providing communities with opportunities to have a voice on projects that impact their lives, and to inform decision making.”

Ms Phillips works to “create a positive and inclusive team culture where everyone is comfortable to share and challenge ideas and bring their authentic selves to work.”

“I want to empower my team to be future leaders and agents of change. I recognise the need to work hard and appreciate that my team have roles, commitments and interests outside of work that are important to them.”

Realising a childhood dream to shape her country

Ms Frenchsie Kumoroputri

Project Engineer, SMEC Indonesia

As a child, Ms Frenchsie Kumoroputri used to look forward to visiting Jakarta because of the skyscrapers and flyovers there. “My favourite part was seeing the skyscrapers and flyovers, I thought they were really beautiful and very useful,” she recalled. “I thought it would be great to build them!” Now as a Project Engineer with SMEC Indonesia, she loves seeing the results of her work and contributing to the infrastructure development of Indonesia.

This was most apparent in the run-up to the 2018 Asian Games, which was hosted in Indonesia. The Contractors and SMEC as a Supervision Consultant managed to conduct design review, value engineering and cost saving identification that saved construction time and cost to support the LRT South Sumatera operation. The LRT opened on 1 August 2018, transporting fans and athletes to the Asian Games venues.

As a project engineer, her job was to assist the project manager (PM), coordinate with the contractor and the client for supervising work and material and other duties. She also had to liaise with the client at the Directorate General of Railways until supervision work handover.

There were some challenges in a male-dominated industry, especially when she faced with senior contractors or the client. Ms Kumoroputri said: “I overcame them with positive thinking and concentrated on my own work and overall project goals, then letting my work speak for me.”

“I think gender issues in the engineering and construction industry do not matter as much now,” she said. “What makes a difference are your work attitude, work results and contribution rather than your gender. I would suggest being persistent and consistent and doing the job as best as you can. The engineering and construction industry are very important for the future!”

The accidental engineer that SMEC made

Ms Flor De Jesus

Senior Structural Engineer/Project Design Coordinator, SMEC Philippines

For Ms Flor De Jesus, it was never her dream to become an engineer. However, as her elder brother was studying Civil Engineering, her parents wanted her to follow suit so that they could save money in buying books.

And working as a structural engineer has turned out to be the right career for Ms De Jesus, who has nearly 40 years of industry experience and joined SMEC in 2014 and. “I am inspired to see some of the design in key projects I am involved in,” she said, referring to the construction supervision projects for NLEX Segment 10, which will drastically reduce travel times from Valenzuela City to Caloocan City, and help decongest the Manila Port Area, and the NLEX-SLEX Connector Road, which links the northern and southern parts of Metro Manila. Flor considers her involvement in these projects as her “monumental achievements” that she can tell her children about. 

In her fast-paced and varied work as a project coordinator, she attends meetings, checks and responds to shop drawings and technical queries, provides method statements and gets involved in decision making. She also has to familiarise herself with specifications and handle requests for “on call services” for other disciplines such as Civil/Highway and Structural Design Calculations.  

For her construction supervision experiences within Metro Manila, including one for an important government project, she often would stay up late at night and sometimes until the next morning on the project site in a male-dominated environment. “Eventually it became a ‘normal’ thing for me,” she said. “Overcoming the initial perception that men could do a better job than women is not that difficult once you have shown competence at your role.”

“What I like most about my role as a structural engineer is knowing that I am able to do my part to ensure the integrity of the infrastructures that are being built,” she said. Women are well-equipped to handle the detailed aspects of the work. In the Philippines, she said, such work can open the door to becoming one’s own boss, like establishing one’s own small construction firm to build one-storey or two-storey houses, or in handling sub-contractor roles for condominium units, such as works for ceilings, walls and partitions.

Ms De Jesus is thankful that SMEC has helped her grow as an engineer. “Working here has given me the satisfaction that even in my own little way I am able to contribute to the progress of my country. I’m very fortunate that SMEC is passionate about gender balance in the workplace that it has given me all the opportunities to succeed whether I’m assigned to the office or working onsite.”

A supportive advocate for women in urban development

Ms Pamela Arconado

Senior Project Manager, Urban Communities, SMEC ANZ

As a Civil Engineer with over 20 years’ experience, Ms Pamela Arconado has worked across Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and the Philippines. 

Over the years, Ms Arconado has seen a shift from just building houses to the development of communities that provide the infrastructure and amenities to support families with their day-to-day activities. She points to community developments on Australia’s Sunshine Coast she has worked on – Aura, The City of Colour and Birtinya Town Centre – as prime examples of vibrant communities with modern residential options, amenities and services and access to a natural environment for healthier living.

“I am passionate about building communities that support social and economic growth while at the same time integrating the principles of sustainable development,” she said. “As an engineer, it is our duty to support a well-designed built environment that enhances the well-being of people for social and economic growth.”

And with virtual meeting tools now available, the sky is the limit when it comes to opportunities in delivering projects, with instantaneous sharing of expertise and knowledge across teams locally or internationally.

From her own experience as an engineer and project leader, Ms Arconado said that women are often seen as compassionate but they can also support, lead, drive change and succeed in their workplaces, too. This is where she feels that women in the urban development industry can thrive as advocates for each other. “It is also important that we support women in the industry,” she said. “It is possible to successfully achieve a balance between caring for our families with the demands of our career.”

To succeed in one’s career, she believes in being constructive. She said: “Gender should not influence one’s career choice. Pursue your career, work hard and don’t be scared to ask for help. Actively look at prospects where career development opportunities can be supported or facilitated by means of mentoring with women. The industry is full of successful women professionals who want to see you succeed!” 

B+H Architects’ female leaders share their journeys for International Women’s Day

Diversity in perspectives translate into richer solutions for the industry. (Photo by Brooke Cagle from Unsplash)

Think you are an introvert and can’t succeed? That was the same mindset that Principal and Design Director Christa Jansen had. She writes here about her experience overcoming her tendency to second-guess herself and why there’s more than one way to lead. Ms Karen Cvornyek, Managing Principal, shares here her insights on navigating practices in North American and China, and leading B+H’s practice in Asia. Ms Lisa Bate, Principal and Global Sustainability Lead was interviewed on how she started and how she has to reframe her thinking to effect change. Ms Susanna Swee, Managing Principal Shanghai and Executive Vice President Asia, shares on WeChat on the need for a greater diversity. B+H has also published an article on the value of diversity in bringing richer solutions for the industry.

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