Sandra Steele combines her in-house legal career at Bovis Lend Lease with a passion for aiding the progress and profile of women in construction. Deborah Singerman reports.
Sandra Steele, national president of the National Association of Women in Construction, was in year 10 when she decided she wanted to be a lawyer and her focus has only shifted from her initial desire to be a barrister to becoming a solicitor. "I enjoy working directly with clients on diverse projects," she says. "I've always enjoyed being a lawyer and have never regretted the decision and never thought 'This is something I'm going to do for a few years and then try something else'."
After completing a commerce/law degree at the University of Queensland in 1991, she worked in commercial litigation at a medium-sized firm in her home city, Brisbane. Although she knew she wanted to specialise, she was not sure what in. "When I was at university, construction law was not on my mind."
However, she had the chance to move into this area at a national firm then progressed to global law firm Baker & McKenzie, moving to its Sydney office in 1999 as a senior associate in the construction and infrastructure group. She completed a Master of Laws (at Queensland and Sydney universities) on international arbitration and international business law which, she says, embedded her further into construction because so many disputes still go to arbitration.
Steele "benefitted enormously from having an excellent mentor at Baker & McKenzie" - senior partner Frank Cahill, who is now retired. "Through understanding and appreciating the importance of being mentored and of developing networks I came to know about the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) ..." she says.
"The building industry is a male-dominated industry and being in an industry like this makes you develop your networks more actively and think more seriously about being mentored."
NAWIC had been going for many years in the US and began in Australia in 1995. Education and contributing to the betterment of the construction industry is one of its five objectives; another is encouraging women to pursue and establish careers in construction. Steele joined in 2000.
She initially sat on the education committee before broadening her input by first being elected to the NSW chapter council, then the national board of directors, becoming vice-president and then president in 2008. "Many of these different roles represent management opportunities that I haven't necessarily had through my work and they have complemented my practice as well. It's been a great learning process for me."
She is now at leading project management, design and construction company Bovis Lend Lease - as legal counsel managing dispute resolution and litigation for the company nationally.
The NAWIC network "created the opportunity for me to get the position at Bovis Lend Lease. I liked the idea of working for one client, learning about its business. Bovis Lend Lease appealed to me because of the nature of the projects and culture of the company, which is very collaborative. From CEOs to the most junior staff members we all have the same [open plan] work space, all working together. It's quite a relaxed and nice place to be."
Bovis Lend Lease is located in Sydney's 30 The Bond building, the first five-star Green Star rated commercial office building in Australia, which the company designed and constructed.
As NAWIC national president Steele launched the Building a Better Future website (www.buildabetterfuture.com.au) with stories and insights from a membership mix including architects, tradeswomen, engineers, lawyers, planners and suppliers. She also helped set up the construction mentoring program with the Master Builders Association and the Australian Institute of Architects (formerly Royal Australian Institute of Architects) which in 2007-08 mentored 150 women.
She says she is also proud of the NAWIC International Women's Day Scholarship 2009, with $16,500 available for funding for research and international travel towards white papers which - in their inaugural year - will be on affordable housing and increasing women's participation in building trades.
Bovis Lend Lease provides childcare options for all its employees, which was an important consideration for Steele. She has two daughters and used the facilities in 30 The Bond even while on maternity leave.
"This enabled me to get things done that I can't do with a toddler and newborn. I also have support at home from my husband, Richard. A lot of my NAWIC work is after hours, attending meetings and functions. I don't see work and life as being separate. Everything is intertwined; everything I do complements each other."
The company is also a NAWIC corporate member, sponsors events and encourages women in the construction industry.
Steele is ambitious for NAWIC. "I believe it has reached a point where it has enough momentum and credibility within the building industry to comment on - and give something back to - the industry, for example to conduct working sessions on topical issues and publish things like the white papers. That's the strategic way. It is no longer just a women's group. It has moved on from that."