Women in charge.

Colette McCartney and Olivia Pearson

We sat down with Colette McCartney and Olivia Pearson from GHDWoodhead creativespaces, to talk about their careers and life as senior leaders in the architecture industry.

Colette McCartney and Olivia Pearson are both managers at GHDWoodhead creativespaces, the architecture and interior design brand of GHD, a Diversity Agenda member.

Colette is Business Group Leader National Interiors and Fit-out Management. Her background is in architecture and has been working in commercial interiors for 20 years.

Olivia is Studio Director, Business Group Leader. She’s an architect who runs an architecture group of 45 people spread across the country, and was a finalist in the 2019 Property Council New Zealand’s Resene Women in Property Award.

As female senior leaders, how important is it to be role models for other women in the industry?

OP: Really important! It encourages and creates ambition within the younger generation of women.

CM: I also think it’s really important to lead by example and be a mentor for the younger generation, to show that you can aspire to be a leader at a higher level. Plus, it breaks down the stereotypes in the industry such as, women don’t know about finance or they don’t know about business. By becoming managers, we’re proving these to be wrong.

Did you have female role models when you started your career?

CM: I definitely did. Some where I worked, but others were clients. I do a lot of corporate work, so I saw successful female CEOs and leaders who’d obviously worked hard and earned their way to the top. Also, while I was studying there were some really good tutors as role models at Auckland University.

OP: I’d say I probably didn’t have as many female people to look up to within the industry, although Zaha Hadid was an architect overseas that I always admired while I was studying. And Helen Clark was someone I thought was pretty awesome as a female Prime Minister.

CM: I really respected Helen Clark for her tenacity as she would never back down. She was a really great orator and could deal with anything that came her way. And I think Jacinda’s doing a great job as well, and I’m inspired by her as a working mother like myself, so if she can do it, anyone can. You can work and you can be a mother and shouldn’t be looked down on, as you can do both roles just as well.

What was your experience like in school? Especially around those stereotypical pathways which young girls have traditionally been pushed towards, and what led you to the roles you’re in now?

CM: I think it depends on your family situation. My mother has been in IT for over 30 years, so was one of the only women in that industry in the late 70s, 80s – and she was a working mother. So, I grew up seeing you can work, be a mother and do it all. The push in my family was that you go to university, you get a good degree and you get a good job. So I’ve done that – and I’m a working mother as well.

OP: Yeah, my dad always said, ‘you’re going to university and you’re going to become a professional’ and I was like, ‘okay, am I?’ I don’t think it was until I went to the UK for my OE, when I realised I could do whatever I wanted. And then came back and studied architecture, which is what I wanted to do.

At university, were you studying with lots of other women?

CM: It was very noticeable that there was a big bias towards men in architecture when I started out at Auckland University.

OP: I’d agree. Maybe at best, 25% females.

Things are definitely changing, but over my career I’ve experienced times where I was overlooked or not respected – Colette McCartney

Have you encountered issues during your career as a result of your gender?

OP: I’ve done a lot of overseas work, and at one point was in the Middle East for a couple of years and there were cultural differences towards females and having females being in charge of projects. So that was really interesting to try and deal with. And then in Australia, I felt they were a bit more advanced in terms of diversity in the workplace. Then, coming back to work for a New Zealand firm, I didn’t see a difference between whether you’re a female or not, it was more about the quality of your work and your technical ability. But I did notice other firms were a little behind in terms of females’ roles.

CM: The construction site is where I’ve encountered issues, particularly in the early stages of my career. There was a lack of respect from site managers and the people doing the work. Often, if I was there with another male, they’d talk to the male if they had questions. I guess the perception is, you’re a woman, you don’t know about construction and you don’t know about detailing. Things are definitely changing, but over my career I’ve experienced times where I was overlooked or not respected.

What role have males played in championing diversity during your career?

OP: I’ve been with GHD for quite a long time and 10 years ago, the GHD Board would have been all male but we had groups like ‘Women in GHD’. The Board played a big role in championing these groups to let our voices be heard. And these days, we now have a good representation of females on that Board, and we have the Rainbow Tick.

What’s your experience been like since joining GHD?

CM: I’ve been with GHD three years as I joined through a merger, and it’s been a huge benefit for me coming to this company with their whole diversity initiative. I told them when I moved across that in five years’ time, I wanted to be in the role I’m doing now. And I’ve got there in three, because they took that on board and helped me achieve that. They said, ‘what can we do to help you get there? What upskilling, what training, what support do you need?’ And all along the way they’ve helped to get me where I am now, so GHD has been very supportive.

OP: I’ve never felt disadvantaged being a female. You’re just treated like another professional and it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.

Do you embrace flexible working?

CM: Definitely. In my interiors team 80–90% of the designers are female, and when you want to recruit good senior people they often have families. So a family-friendly, flexible way of working is important. Otherwise, you’d just have young grads and you wouldn’t have any seniority or diversity of experience. Flexibility to allow people to work from home, come in a bit later or do the kid drop-off is so vital. And trust is important. I have worked for firms in the past where you had to be sitting at your desk from nine until five. And if you left to go to the bathroom, it was like ‘where have you gone?’. Thankfully. those days are gone and GHD definitely promotes that sort of flexibility – you can work anywhere; you don’t need to be sitting at a desk in the office.

OP: And I think it definitely helps that we’re part of the GHD global network, so we’re all connected and you can work in any country, which lends itself to being able to work from home.

What’s the benefit of diversity in senior leadership?

CM: I think, it brings a different approach and thoughts on how to do things and how to make decisions.

OP: And possibly sometimes a little bit more compassion, maybe.

CM: Yeah, I’d say more compassion. Understanding that everyone has a different approach, different family situation.

OP: And having people who can look at things through a different lens.

And lastly, what’s your view on pay equity?

CM: If we’re in the same role as a male, we should be getting paid the same and we shouldn’t be disadvantaged.

OP: I don’t think we are disadvantaged at GHD, but I have seen in other firms where you definitely are. I know when you start as a graduate, you’re all on the same salary, but then things sadly can change from there.

Thank you to Colette and Olivia for taking the time to talk to us.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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