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Master Builders appoints its first woman CEO, Denita Wawn interviewed on ABC The World Today


EMILY BOURKE: But first, the blokey walls are coming down at one of Australia’s most male-dominated business lobby groups. The Master Builders’ Association has appointed Denita Wawn as its new national chief executive, the first woman in the group’s 127-year history. Mrs Wawn is experienced in breaking down the stereotypes as a former chief executive of the Brewers’ Association and running industrial campaigns at the Australian Hotels’ Association and the National Farmers’ Federation. Denita Wawn is speaking with the ABC’s senior business correspondent, Peter Ryan.

PETER RYAN: Denita Wawn, congratulations on the role. Is this a new era for Master Builders’ Australia?

DENITA WAWN: Certainly a new era in terms of some cultural change at Master Builders, and it embraces the need for more women in the building and construction industry.

PETER RYAN: You’re replacing Wilhelm Harnisch who was chief executive for 15 years, a bit of a household name in the world of building and construction. But as a woman, what will you be doing differently?

DENITA WAWN: I think it’s the inclusive nature and diversity of thinking, the opportunity for men and women to strive for excellence. We need to ensure the women in the industry are also recognised for their efforts just as much as the men, particularly in a large, small and medium-sized businesses. My brother and sister-in-law run a building business, and my brother’s very much the face, fronting person, but I’d like to see my sister-in-law be acknowledged just as much for her contribution to the business as my brother is as well.

PETER RYAN: Now, Master Builders chose to announce your appointment on International Women’s Day. Does that feel a bit odd, or even tokenistic, given that you’ve been giving men a run for their money for quite a long time?

DENITA WAWN: No, Peter, not at all. I think it was an opportunity. My appointment was announced to the membership last week, and certainly it was a rigorous and merit-based selection process that just happened to find a female in the role.  It was a great opportunity to highlight, on International Women’s Day, that women can strive for excellence – that they can be leaders in their field, including in male-dominated areas both in building and construction, but also in the political world.

PETER RYAN: As you say, building and construction is male-dominated, with less than one per cent of women in building trades and not much more in professional roles like site management. Clearly though that’s not good enough.

DENITA WAWN: No, it’s not. And certainly Master Builders’ Australia is already embarking on a project to change that.

PETER RYAN: There’s a lot of focus on the gender pay gap, especially at the chief executive level. Have you confronted the glass ceiling when negotiating your CEO salary?

DENITA WAWN: No problems at all in that regard.

PETER RYAN: Well, last week the workplace gender equality agency said a full-time female worker takes home, on average, $27,000 less a year than their male colleagues. Are you disturbed at that?

DENITA WAWN: It’s an opportunity to recognise that women need to get into senior roles, and that, therefore, brings up that pay gap problem. We need to encourage women into leadership roles, and I hope appointments such as myself and other leading examples that we have around the country in terms of female leaders realises that women can undertake these roles. It doesn’t matter whether you have kids or not, but we do have the confidence, and we do have the capacity to take leadership roles in Australia.

PETER RYAN: Without asking you for personal details, are you happy with the deal that you got to be chief executive of Master Builders?

DENITA WAWN: Absolutely.

PETER RYAN: In terms of sending a message to employers, regulators and the Government, is one of your aims to get a better and fairer deal for women who work in building and construction?

DENITA WAWN: I’m certainly not aware, specifically, of women being disadvantaged in the industry in terms of pay rates, mainly because there’s not many of them. But certainly I think the big effort we need to drive in building and construction is encouraging women in the first place into an industry that has huge opportunities and is highly paid.

PETER RYAN: And one of the big challenges, I suppose, is changing the image of building and construction being a male-dominated industry. How do you change that?

DENITA WAWN: Certainly we need to recognise that it’s not necessarily a life of hard labour, that there are a wide variety of tasks focusing on creativity and multitasking and organisational skills. And certainly there are a number of firms already out there embracing women on site and in their workplaces. And we need to simply go out there and sell that message.

PETER RYAN: In a prior chief executive role at the Brewers’ Association of Australia and New Zealand, you implemented change across the board. Were you able to get a better deal for women there?

DENITA WAWN: Certainly there were a huge number of women already involved in the Brewers’ Association, and the beer industry generally, which may surprise some listeners. Certainly my focus in terms of the Brewers’ Association was cultural change, reputational change and we certainly also looked at getting more women to drink beer. And again, it was just simply changing our messages of getting women to understand why beer might be a choice for them. And I think that’s exactly the same approach we need to take with building and construction.

PETER RYAN: And drinking beer, I suppose, is part of the image of building and construction for both men and women now.

DENITA WAWN: Certainly. The great thing about working for industry associations is that you have a huge array of experiences, and I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work for the Hotels’ Association, the farmers, the brewers and now builders.

PETER RYAN: In your new role, what is the biggest broad challenge, given that the Prime Minister and Treasurer are struggling to get their reform agenda through?

DENITA WAWN: Certainly when it comes to things such as housing affordability, as builders, we want to improve supply. We need to get the story out about why supply barriers are there.

PETER RYAN: And that’s the battle at the moment with corporate tax cut proposals, given that wages went backwards in the December quarter, and people are feeling less well off.

DENITA WAWN: That’s right. We have to provide evidence. That is incumbent upon us as industry associations to justify change. And now we need to turn our attention to those company tax cuts and other productivity measures to assist our members, particularly the 98 per cent that are small and medium-sized businesses.

EMILY BOURKE: Denita Wawn, the newly appointed chief executive of the Master Builders’ Australia with the ABC’s business correspondent, Peter Ryan.

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