Trailblazers in their male-dominated professions, these South Australian women have broken new ground for others to follow. In this first in the series, Robbie Bower tells us about the challenges she faced and how she overcame them.
Words of wisdom: Robbie Bower
Robbie Bower – Owner, Bower Construction and Design
Can you give us a brief summary of your career?
It was an accidental career. After my husband and I separated, I was suddenly the sole breadwinner for three young boys. When I lived in Sydney in the 1960s I bought my first house, did it up, and sold it for a fantastic profit. A few renos later and back in Adelaide, with my sons to support, I decided that flipping houses would be a great way to stay afloat and pay the school fees. I had no formal background; I just enjoyed it and had a knack for it. It wasn’t long before people started asking me to build for them. I learnt how to run sites from the trenches up. I learnt to read sub-contractor’s plans and got my builder’s licence 40 years ago.
I set up Bower Construction in 1976 and my sons Piers, Josh and Sinclair now run the company alongside me. It has grown bigger than I ever imagined and I feel so fortunate to have forged an enduring career as a Master Builder in South Australia.
What were some of the challenges you faced early on in your career?
It was very common to receive a phone call about a potential job and the person at the end of the phone would be shocked that I was a woman. They were expecting Robbie Bower to be a man. I used to laugh; I found it amusing.
There’s no doubt construction is a very male-dominated world but I think I have managed to navigate it well. We all have respect for each other on the building site and – I know it’s not very politically correct these days – but I always say that I’m the only builder who can kiss their workmen!
Some of the language on site can be very colourful; mostly it’s not too distasteful. There may be a bit of wolf-whistling; I used to get that a bit as a younger woman, but I didn’t really mind.
How did you overcome these challenges?
As a woman, I think I brought a unique perspective to the building process and always considered how a house would work for a family.
On the whole, I didn’t encounter anybody who was too rude but there’s no doubt there were aggressive men around who didn’t want to take orders from a woman. I just made sure we didn’t have men like that in our team.
Physically, building is heavy work and I’ve now had two back operations, probably from lugging huge bags of cement around. I used to get on the tools a lot, I’m very good on a shovel, I’m a good demolisher and I can flood [finish] concrete. But I’m not on the tools anymore at my age.
What has been the most significant improvement for women in your profession during your career?
It seems to be more acceptable for women to work on construction sites these days, and I would say generally women are succeeding in lots of male-dominated industries. I would employ a female tiler or carpenter if she was top of her field.
What is still to be achieved for women in your profession?
I think there could still be more women in the industry. I was on a job last year and there was a female steel fixer working on a swimming pool, doing very heavy work out in the sun. That was most unusual. So, while there have been advances, I think we still have a way to go for women to be more commonly involved in the construction industry.
Any advice for young women who want to enter the building trade?
No matter what field you work in, play to your strengths and what is unique about you. Construction is a fantastic career. You’re mixing with the best people and the humour on site is amazing, we tease and laugh a lot and there’s a kind of irreverence. It’s quite special to see things grow from the ground up and everyone takes pride in their work.
I look back on my career very fondly. I’m 79 this year; I’m still enjoying it and I can’t imagine being retired. I still work five days a week and I’m on the job at 7.15am. I can’t imagine sitting at home; I love what I do.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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