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- A characteristic of inquisitive and motivated people is that, the more they look into a field of endeavour, the more they appreciate its complexities and intricacies. Determined to understand it, and maybe even reform or change it, they are drawn into it, until it becomes their own passion. Had you told a 15 year old Rebecca Dickson that she would be drawn into the construction industry she’d hardly have looked up from Friends to laugh the suggestion off.
Rebecca grew up in Eltham on Melbourne’s bushy north-eastern fringe. Her Mum, who was an events coordinator at the Hilton Hotel before retraining and working as a medical secretary and now a school registrar, had a strong belief in education and instilled in her three kids an interest in ideas and learning.
Rebecca was a very talented student who won a place at The Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School. She was somewhat naïve about what the world had to offer. An unashamed fan of trashy TV back then (and still is!), she got a few insights from shows like Ally McBeal which she (half?) jokingly claims was enough for her to choose Law over Medicine. She studied Arts-Law at Monash majoring in Politics, Geography and Environmental Science, but was reluctant to enter the legal profession. To put herself through uni she worked as a swimming instructor and became interested in teaching. She also worked as a para-legal at Maddocks.
Still unsure about where to direct her energies, she enrolled in a Diploma of Education at Monash University. Around that time she was encouraged by her senior colleagues at Maddocks to apply for their graduate program. She warmed to the idea, but still completed the Dip Ed, before taking on the articled clerkship the following year. The firm had three main practice groups and she eventually found her place with the construction practice. “They were a wonderful group,” Rebecca recalls. “The partners with whom I worked were exceptional. Simone Holding, in particular, was a fantastic mentor and teacher. The partners were interested in the junior lawyers. They were patient. They listened. They involved us from the outset. They encouraged us to engage with clients ourselves.”
Rebecca became increasingly interested in the law around construction, and in construction itself. Following an email from a colleague, she joined the National Association of Women in Construction in 2011 to learn more about the industry and to meet other women and hear of their experiences. Given her drive, she was appointed the Chair of the Victorian Chapter’s Education Committee, and is now in the midst of her second term on the Board. She remains a staunch advocate for positive change for women in the industry and has prepared and will implement NAWIC’s national advocacy plan. There are so many issues to address – including accessibility to roles and the pay gap. She is in regular communication with government and with industry leaders.
Keen on further specialising in ‘front end’ construction law, she took a job as project counsel with the Port of Melbourne Corporation to support the team responsible for delivering the Port Capacity Project. This was the project to redevelop the precinct under the Westgate Bridge including Webb Dock. She administered two major contracts – around roads and services and the wharves – making sure they ran the way they were intended to run. She was also on the project leadership team.
“I loved it,” she says. “I had boots. I went to the site. I mucked in with the team. I could really see the importance of building relationships with clients, the relevance of the work, and the level of trust that was nourished. I definitely was not a lawyer in the office. And I realised that I was starting to think of myself as a being part of the construction industry and not so much the legal profession.”
Always considering the possibility of a better way, she began to think about the construction industry. She was very enthusiastic, she had fresh eyes, she was insightful and wanted to think from first principles. “I asked fundamental questions,” she says. “What is ‘the work’? How is the work done? How could it be done? How have people in construction thought about things? How do contractors and clients engage with each other?”
In those days Rebecca was often the only woman in the room, or in the team. And often the youngest person too. She had something to say and won the respect of those around her.
She has certainly emerged as a leader herself. She is also involved in the Australian Contractors’ Association, the Construction Industry Leadership Forum, the Society of Construction Law (including co-chairing the Young Constructors’ Committee) and has just been appointed as Director of Australian Gender Equality Council. Like her mother she believes in education and encouragement for young people – and who knows what opportunities will open.
Which is exactly why, after a stint at Minter Ellison and Melbourne Airport, she was attractive to John Beever Australia (JBA) where she is the senior in-house counsel. JBA features a number of women in its senior ranks, including Joanne Riley (Commercial Manager), Ninna West and Julia Hay (both Senior Project Managers).
JBA Managing Director, Ray McCann, reflected on the positive impact Rebecca has had since joining the JBA Executive team. “Rebecca has certainly raised the awareness of the senior roles available to women in our business. And she has made an immediate impact in dealing with significant issues across the full spectrum of our operations. The fact that she makes time to take a seat on the AEGC and NAWIC boards speaks volumes for her commitment to having the construction industry recognise the positive outcomes of truly diverse work environments. For us, this is a real bonus in our own journey to achieving this goal and we are very supportive of her industry participation.”
And if all this isn’t enough Rebecca lectures (casually) in the undergraduate construction law subject at Monash University, where she is also working towards her PhD. She acknowledges the shortcomings of the traditional adversarial approach that has typified parties on either side of contracts and the pressures that places on the whole industry. Her research looks at the human dimension of construction, identifying the impact of project procurement processes and contractual risk transfer on the mental health and safety of individual workers and also its impact on the individual’s delivery of work. Management transfer the massive pressures on themselves to the workers so they can meet their deadlines. But who suffers? “Those writing up the contracts…sometimes forget that someone actually has to do the work,” Rebecca says, “and it’s individual human beings who bear the burden. This is about creating approaches which emphasise the reduction of stress, anxiety and pressure to get things done by building in appropriate time.”
Given how dynamic and capable Rebecca Dickson is, expect things to change for the better.
This story was written by: John Harms. John is writing a four-part series on the senior women in John Beever Australia.