Meet Althea Papinczak from WIDAC

From building a network to landing new projects, women in construction must fight to forge their own paths. Althea Papinczak is on a mission to change that

As the founder and national director of Women in Design and Construction (WIDAC), Althea Papinczak is building a powerful, purpose-led community that meets the needs of its members—namely, women in construction across Australia.

The idea came to mind five years ago after Papinczak made a career switch and found herself trying to network in the commercial construction industry, only to find most events fell short of her needs.

“When I started attending some networking events in Brisbane, I didn’t find many of them suited me in terms of what I was looking for,” Papinczak said. “I wasn’t connecting with the right people and a lot of the events felt really uncomfortable.”

Rather than give up and go at it alone, Papinczak decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I had an events background and I thought to myself, ‘I know lots of women in design, construction and engineering. I should get them all together and throw my own networking event.’ And so, I did,” Papinczak said. “Our first networking event was 20 women in a pub in West End. And they all loved it. The rest from there was kind of history.”

From 20 women in a pub, WIDAC quickly grew to events with 50 attendees, then 100, then 150. Before Papinczak knew it, the organisation snowballed into Sydney and Melbourne. Today, WIDAC has 1,500 members and 12,500 people in its community.

Opening the doors for women to connect

Networking was just the first step for Papinczak. After years of going to events that were formal and didn’t feel approachable, she wanted to create a safe place to discuss the topics that truly matter to women in construction.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘you guys are really unafraid to do the hairy topics or the taboo topics,’” Papinczak said. “We’ve always been a networking organisation that, first and foremost, is very open and very vulnerable. When we talk about different things, we provide a really amazing safe platform for anyone in our industry to get up and share their experiences and their challenges.”

The road to leadership. Babyproofing your career. Intergenerational harmony in the workplace. Overcoming the workplace bully. These are all challenges that Papinczak’s experienced—and that she wants the industry to discuss in a really open and honest way.

“Our intent from the beginning was to make this kind of welcoming platform,” Papinczak said. “It’s a very safe community that we’ve created with a really nice welcoming energy. People who come along to our events notice the difference.”

It’s not just women, either. Inspired by her own experiences in the workplace, Papinczak believes that men are integral to creating a positive future for the construction industry.

“I’ve been championed by some really incredible men at different stages of my career,” she said. “It’s really nice to get the guys along to our events because I think there’s then that understanding from them as to where they could be more mindful around what they’re doing, the decisions that they’re making and how they can be more inclusive in the workplace.”

Paving the way for the next generation

In addition to her passion and drive to bring people together, Papinczak is a strong advocate for professional and personal development.

“When you’re a female in construction, you might be one of 10 in your company,” she said. “It’s just really about having that group where you feel like you can kind of talk about things and seek advice for different things.”

Papinczak wanted to provide education and support to all women at all stages throughout their career, from graduation to landing their first job and beyond. And that’s precisely what she’s doing with WIDAC.

The organisation provides multiple forms of support for women in the industry, from scholarship programs and graduate pathway events to guidance on make contacts, getting certified, obtaining fair advice, or accessing the right consultants for a project.

Papinczak is also a firm believer in aligning members with mentors and champions to support them as they grow and develop. This was something she had to go out there and do on her own when she first started—and now she wants to make it easier for others who follow in her footsteps.

“These are the people that you can look up to,” she said, “who’ve been through that journey who can provide advice on where the challenges were, how they overcame those hurdles as they progressed through their career, and how they navigated certain scenarios through different kinds of stages.”

Papinczak said this type of mentorship is the key to ensuring that future generations face fewer barriers than their predecessors.

“Seeing more women kind of promoted in our industry really means that every kind of female needs to make sure that she’s got a champion or an advocate that she’s working with,” Papinczak said. “You know that person’s the first person to put you forward for the new project that comes in, a new opportunity, or a great piece of work that’s coming up.”

Working toward work-life balance

As someone who was already a big supporter of flexible work, Papinczak’s glad that others in the industry are now benefitting from a similar set-up.

“I think COVID-19 forced a lot of employers to realise that workplace flexibility should just be a norm,” she said. “That all of us should be given that opportunity to have flexibility with hours and location of work.”

But while Papinczak believes flexibility should be the status quo, she’s cautious of the challenges that come along with it. Papinczak has seen this first-hand with her own work schedule during the pandemic, where she found herself struggling with work-life balance and regularly working for “an extra hour or two hours.”

“One thing that COVID-19 really has put employers on notice about is that you’ve got to be really careful with the flexible hours,” Papinczak said. “Are people losing that ability to switch off? With flexible working, I think the lines get very blurred if you’re working from home. It’s given us a lot of freedoms, but we have to be really careful with how we’re managing kind of that work-life balance and shutting off when we go home.”

Once an employer gets it right, Papinczak said, it’s a game-changer.

“It allows more females to be able to enjoy the construction industry and have a really good work-life balance throughout their career,” she said. “There needs to be more focus on how we support them as they go through different stages, from the early days to starting a family.”

Looking toward a post-COVID future

The construction industry hasn’t been immune to the effects of COVID-19, and neither has Papinczak or WIDAC. As the director of an events-based business, Papinczak has had to pivot, adapt and then do it all over again. Digital events, webinars, online meetings—you name it, she’s done them all to help support the community over the past two years.

It’s been fun, Papinczak said. But ultimately, she can’t wait to be in her element and organise in-person events for the community to come together again.

“I think people are really missing and needing human connection again,” Papinczak said. “So, for the next 12 months, we just want to do as much in our community as possible, getting people back together as we can. That’s where it is for us. That’s what we love doing.”

Want to learn more about supporting women in design and construction?

See the full interview with Althea