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Students in Focus

Building a better future for women in construction

When Ashleigh Johnston took a job as a receptionist at construction development Ginninderry soon after finishing high school, she didn’t expect that the role would allow her to change lives.

Now, as she continues to work as a compliance officer for the same company, she’s in a position to help those who need it the most – running job-ready programs for some of Canberra’s most vulnerable jobseekers.

For this inspirational work, Ashleigh received the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Award for Student of the Year in 2020.

“In my time at Ginninderry, I have actually worked as part of our Spark program, which is the way we can give back to the community throughout our 40-year development,” she says.

“It aims to provide jobs to young people who have been out of the job market for a long time – particularly from the suburbs surrounding the development that might be in a lower socio-economic bracket.”

Ashleigh also project-managed construction programs which provided training and opportunities for youth and adults who had been disconnected from the labour force due to incarceration, substance abuse or domestic violence issues.

“My job was to put these people into our program and get them to complete it,” she says.

“The last two programs I ran – with 23 participants in each – had close to 100 per cent completion rates. That means the participants either completed the program and got into jobs, or they went back to school after finishing with us.”

Along with her work commitments, Ashleigh is also studying a Bachelor of Building and Construction Management at the University of Canberra – a degree she hopes will allow her to continue in the sector long into the future.

She loves the industry, and knows she’s found a lifelong career.

“People who work in this industry have such a great lifestyle,” Ashleigh says.

“There’s good work-life balance, I’ve always wanted a job where I could be outside, and the overall energy of the sector is fantastic.

“I’m someone who would go insane being stuck in an office all day, so this job is the perfect solution.”

As someone who didn’t thrive in high school, Ashleigh’s experience at UC has been one she’s enjoyed.

She says her construction classes have given her a glimpse into a more equitable construction industry, particularly for women.

“On work sites it can still be quite traditional and being a girl is difficult. You do have to think about what you wear and what you say,” she explains.

“At uni, it’s actually quite inclusive. There are a lot of girls coming up through the younger grades, which is really exciting.”

She’s hopeful for the future of women in construction.

“Even in my short time in the industry, I’ve seen a huge shift in the culture and the ‘boys club’ side of things,” Ashleigh says.

Outside of work and study, Ashleigh has an interest in a rural lifestyle, and spends time with her partner on nearby family farms.

“I’m a big horse rider, I just love horses and being outside. I’ve also played water polo in the past – even going to the 2018 University Games in Brisbane for UC, where we came back with a gold medal,” she says.

Aside from those passions, Ashleigh is eager to continue her inspirational work in the construction industry and make changes for good.

“I definitely want to try and make the industry more inclusive for everyone. An increase of women in construction and higher youth participation are things that I want to see in the future.”

Words by Elly Mackay. Photos by Madeleine Wood and supplied.

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