Building like a girl: Joanne Farrell receives ACT Women and Leadership Australia award

Joanne Farrell, winner of the 2024 ACT Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership, recently spoke with Women's Agenda about how she's broken down stereotypes in the traditionally male-dominated construction industry. Read more.
Joanne Farrell
Women's Agenda
5 mins

When Joanne Farrell was in Year 10, she told her careers advisor she wanted to look for a trade apprenticeship. She was drawn to the construction industry and was fascinated by the building and making of things.

But her careers advisor told her: “If you want an apprenticeship, be a hairdresser.”

That wasn’t the hardest part of Farrell’s 28-year long, and counting, career in the construction industry. For nearly three decades, she has been told she doesn’t belong, she’s not strong enough and what she describes as “all the usual” stereotyping.

Construction is Australia’s most male-dominated industry. According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), just 13 per cent of the industry are women. What’s more, only two per cent are in trades.

Despite it all, Farrell now works as a general manager at Kane Constructions in the ACT, but has also turned the hardship she and most women in construction continue to face into Build Like A Girl, a not-for-profit organisation helping women navigate the challenges associated with the male-dominated industry.

Joanne Farrell
Source: Supplied

Now, Farrell is being recognised for her ongoing work as the ACT recipient of the 2024 Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership and will be presenting a speech at the Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium in Canberra on Friday 10 May.

Acting GM of Women & Leadership Australia Megan Ibrahim says she is thrilled to have Farrell recognised for her hard work and dedication in a challenging field for women.

“Ms Farrell is a prominent advocate for women in the construction sector, an area largely underrepresented by women. We were drawn to her achievements as a General Manager dismantling barriers for women, promoting equal access, inclusivity, and collaboration. What also stood out to us is her community work and fundraising through her charity Build Like a Girl.
We are thrilled to recognise her significant contributions with this award.” - Meg Ibrahim, Acting GM Women & Leadership Australia

Where it began

Following the “advice” from her careers advisor, Farrell, who grew up in Wollongong, NSW, stayed in school for Year 11 and 12. She was the only female in her woodwork and metalwork classes.

“I had a natural aptitude with those things,” Farrell says, “but I didn’t get a lot of encouragement to take that further.”

Determined to pursue an apprenticeship in construction on her own, Farrell began looking for opportunities in the region when she left school in 1996. She was door knocking, resume dropping and making phone calls every day for several weeks.

Within the first couple of months, Farrell was rejected at least 150 times.

“I was told the same thing: ‘We don’t want women.’ ‘You’re not strong enough.’ ‘You’re a distraction.’ All the usual stuff,” Farrell says.

At last, she made a breakthrough, albeit an exploitation of her labour: Farrell was offered an unpaid three-month position to “get a foot in the door”. She says it was her only way in.

“It really became a battle of will for me to prove that I belong there and I could do the job,” Farrell says. 

“And for them, it became a game to see how much they could do to try and force me out the door.”

Farrell eventually moved to Sydney, where she was able to find more work. While none of it was ever easy, she says she was determined to stick it out – all for the love of construction.

“I’m just fascinated by buildings, and by seeing these creations,” Farrell says.

“We are creating something. It’s an artistry in its own unique form. Taking something that’s written on a piece of paper and using our minds and bodies to build them into something tangible has fascinated me since I was a kid. That’s what keeps me here.”

Joanne Farrell

From mentee to mentor

Along the way, Farrell has had several key mentors who have helped her navigate the ups, the downs and everything in between – including Jeff Powell, from John Holland, and trailblazer for women in construction Alison Mirams.

Now, at 45 years old, she says it’s time to pay it forward.

“I’m in a place in my career where it is absolutely my obligation now to bring other women with me and to give them the opportunity, the confidence and the guidance that is absolutely needed through those critical times,” Farrell says.

When she was appointed at the General Manager of Kane Construction’s ACT branch, several women in the construction organisation reached out to her for advice and guidance as a woman in the male-dominated industry.

Their stories sounded eerily familiar. In fact, these women faced the exact same challenges and hardships as Farrell did – stereotypes, sexism and feeling like they didn’t belong.

“It started off with a trickle, and then it just became a tsunami of women,” Farrell says.

“And I just had this absolute rage bubbling inside me. I was just frustrated and angry that the stories from these women – it could have been my story, word for word, what they were telling me.”

But Farrell decided to channel that anger and frustration into something positive – and that’s how Build Like A Girl began.

On a weekend in 2018, Farrell sat at her dining table and mapped out what would become a not-for-profit organisation, giving women in the construction industry a helping hand. The organisation connects mentors with mentees, helps women find work and provides pathways for young women who are starting out in a trade.

By August 2020, the organisation became a registered charity and now operates nationwide.

Farrell has seen some really positive moments come out of Build Like A Girl. She has seen girls progress from the day they bought their first tool kit and their first pair of work boots, to the day they completed their apprenticeship and moved up within the company.

But Farrell says there is still a long way to go and a lot of work for Build Like A Girl to do yet. In just one month at the end of last year, Farrell and her team at Build Like A Girl dealt with three serious sexual harassment events, and one sexual assault.

“You gotta process the good with the bad. At the moment we’re sitting at about 72% dropout rate for first year female apprentices,” she says.

“As much as we’re trying to combat the culture, there are things still happening out there.”

The award

On Friday May 10, Joanne Farrell will be accepting the 2024 ACT Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership at the Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium in Canberra. The award recognises her trailblazing spirit embodied in Build Like A Girl, helping others get to where she is now.

She says she is thrilled to be receiving such a wonderful accolade to go with her various other awards, including being named ACT Australian of the Year for 2024.

“I was pretty taken aback – I didn’t see it coming,” she says.

“But while it’s me getting up there, getting that award, it doesn’t just represent me. There’s a lot of other women around me, behind me, everywhere who are striving for the same thing.”

Farrell says she would love to see more women in the industry, and young girls with the same aspirations she once had as a kid shouldn’t be afraid of giving it a crack.

“Don’t let other people tell you what you can and can’t do. I think that’s not just an industry thing that’s a society thing,” Farrell says.

“So all the stereotypes and all the other rubbish that’ll be brought up – don’t listen to any of that. We’re already here doing it. You just need to come and join us.”

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda