bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Radmila Desic shows there is a future for women in the construction industry.

She wields a nail gun for a living and Radmila Desic’s passion for the construction industry oozes out of every pore. Just being in her presence and hearing her enthusiasm for her craft makes me want to pick up a nail gun and build something. Desic, 40, is a chippy by trade and has become a champion for other women to forge a career path in the construction industry. Desic’s own path is an inspiring one to follow. She has won numerous awards, met with prime ministers and had her say in Parliament to help change the face of the industry she loves.

“I wouldn’t do well in any other area; you can come to a work site and it is dirt one day and someone’s home six months later. There isn’t an industry that beats it! It pays well too, so for women it can break the cycle of minimum wages. If you added up the cost of the handbags [owned by] women in this industry you could buy a luxury car. I’m serious…the women live very well. Many I know have bought houses early and they are not reliant on partners because they are paid what they deserve.”

Desic is a strong advocate for equality for women which drives the mother-of-three to spend thousands of hours volunteering for organisations and committees such as Tradeswomen on the Move and Wider Opportunities for Women. She is national director and vice president at National Association of Women in Construction and she won a leadership award for the strategy she prepared for Construction Skills Queensland on how to engage and develop women further in the industry.

“Many times over the years when I have told women I am a chippy they say to me ‘I wish I could have done that’. I want my daughters to grow up in a society where they never have to say that, where women can do what they wish to do and not wish they could do it over.”

Desic started her career 11 years ago as an apprentice carpenter joiner. Completing the apprenticeship was hard enough but finding work as one of a few female carpenters in Brisbane was even harder. “Construction companies need to understand that if a girl puts her hand up for an apprenticeship, she genuinely wants to be there and will put in more of an effort. For me the hardest thing to deal with in the beginning was that the guys wanted to help me too much. I wanted to stand on my own two feet.”

Nevertheless she attributes her success to the men who believed in and share her view that more women in the business is better…men like Rod Cam, CEO of Construction Skills Queensland. “When I first met Radmila she wasn’t used to someone in a senior position talking to her so she was almost timid around me, but the more time I spent with her I realised how opinionated she was and strong, and I found she was incredibly well-respected by other women in the industry.

“She never misses an opportunity. She was asked once by a government minister at an event ‘where do you fit in?’ She took that opportunity to champion her cause and because of that she works closely with the Minister of Education and Employment on a committee to help select trade scholarships. It’s a $10million initiative and she got there, not by politics but by strength of character.

“In 10 years I have no doubt that she will be one of the leading women in this country, not just for women in construction but for all women.” Desic’s friend Janelle Kerrisk agrees. Kerrisk has knocked down a few gender barriers herself to become a female partner (by age 30) of the construction and infrastructure group at corporate and commercial law firm Holding Redlich and she is Queensland and NT president of the National Association for Women in Construction – the latter role she has largely due to Desic.

“She has a very special way of getting people to do things for her. But I wouldn’t have stayed so long if it wasn’t for her encouragement and support; she gives everything all the time, to other women in the industry, her family, her job, our friendship. I have seen her at low points but she manages to find strength from somewhere which I think is her greatest attribute; she has strength like I haven’t seen in anyone in my lifetime,” Kerrisk says with genuine admiration in her voice.

But even Desic admits she has a long way to go to achieve the change she’s looking for. “In 1957 the first female carpenter was employed in Queensland. Sadly, the numbers aren’t changing as quickly as I’d like – today we still flatline at 3 to 5 per cent.” Is that because you can’t be feminine in her career, I ask, and she firmly disputes.

“One of the biggest mistakes women make is trying to emulate the guys in the industry. I made that mistake myself but what makes us stand out is our attention to detail, communication and coming up with ways to do things that aren’t about brawn. I always say female tradeswomen shouldn’t emulate the men because there are already enough men in it.”