But Mirams’ workbook of $700 million of NSW projects jumped by $530 million last month with the addition of the six Melbourne projects.
However, growing the business is not the biggest move Mirams has made. In a break with established practice, she has transformed conditions on Roberts’ construction sites bringing to an end a practice that entrenched building as a blokes’ game.
To become one of the very few women at the top in Australia’s property industry points to a deep streak of resilience and diplomacy. (Her peers include Mirvac boss Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, Laing O’Rourke’s recent appointment of Rebecca Hanley and Buildcorp co-principal Josephine Sukkar.)
But it doesn’t come without scarring. As Mirams makes clear over the course of our lunch, disrupting construction is also very personal.
It’s her second time at Nobu at Sydney’s newly built (by Lendlease) Crown Barangaroo tower. As we sit down, Mirams offers to order and goes for the yellowtail jalapeño, spicy miso chips with tuna and baby tiger prawn tempura with creamy spicy sauce.
Mirams has big plans to make construction as accessible a career for women as any other. Her first step has been to try to introduce five-day weeks on the projects the company tenders for. By excluding Saturdays and paying overtime rates for additional weekday hours, workers can earn the same pay as working for six days.
The industry’s cultural problems are well documented. A report last year found work-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses in 2018 cost $6.1 billion, the productivity cost of employees consistently working overtime was $708 million, mental ill-health cost $643 million and the estimated costs of construction worker suicides were $533 million.
Men working six days a week are exhausted and miss out on family life. Their partners are forced to give up careers or even meaningful participation in the paid economy because caring responsibilities land one-sidedly on their shoulders.
In any event, Saturdays are largely used to catch up on things not done during the week and can be done away with through more efficient planning and scheduling, she says.
This month, Health Infrastructure NSW published a report into the five-day week. It showed the human benefits outweighed what it called an “insignificant” 0.63 per cent increase in costs. The agency said it would ask all future tenderers to submit bids based on both five- and six-day working weeks.
Her proposal sounds logical. But Mirams is ruffling feathers in an industry notoriously resistant to change; in 2016, consultancy McKinsey famously ranked construction to be ahead of only agriculture and hunting when it came to digitisation.
The construction union is all for it. But her colleagues who run the industry aren’t so happy. Mirams’ signing in 2020 of a five-day agreement with the CFMEU in NSW prompted Building Commissioner David Chandler to accuse her of “rolling over and opening the door to unsustainable costs and practices” that he said would harm the industry.
“It terrified a lot of people when we did it initially,” she says. “We had one builder say to us, ‘If you make that work I’m f—ed … because if you get it to work, I’ll have to do it.’ Change is scary to them.”
Roberts trialled the new work pattern on Sydney’s $341 million Concord Hospital redevelopment project. But it won’t be rolled out to its new Melbourne projects. The company has taken on those projects largely as they were, with some extensions of schedule.
However, Roberts is talking to the CFMEU about putting a five-day working week calendar into the next Victorian umbrella agreement with the union.
Public sector clients are keen to push the change and Mirams, who wants to boost her new Victorian presence in government work, sees public work as the best place to pursue change.
Mirams’ willingness to challenge stereotypes reflects the way she was raised.
Born Alison Hocking to marine engineer dad John and school teacher mum Helen, she grew up in Sydney’s upper north shore suburb of Lindfield, with a sister, Jennifer, who is now a civil engineer.
The family shared a love of waterskiing and the girls were raised using their dad’s lathes and drills to work on the boat and engine.
“When Dad died, in his eulogy Mum said in many respects, John got two sons and she got two daughters. I’m a really good sewer; if you think about the process of sewing and building, it’s exactly the same: you are following a pattern to make something.”
Mirams, a quantity surveyor by training, started in construction in 1998 when she joined the then Brookfield Multiplex as a contracts administrator.
Her first job was on the Chelsea tower, a 22-storey apartment building in Sydney’s Chatswood.
Construction legal geeks know this building created history when a subsequent, prolonged attempt by residents to sue the builder for $10 million over defects went all the way to the High Court. It found Multiplex owed building owners no duty of care after the statutory period allowed for claiming defects had passed.
Mirams’ problems were more immediate, however.
“I had no toilet,” she says. “I had to leave the site that our office was in, had to go out the gate down past the site, past a commercial office building around the corner, to use a retail toilet for 12 months.”
That particular experience raises another question about the nature of a building site as a workplace and the quality of what it produces. Construction lawyers are already quick to draw links between the harsh contractual relationships between builders and subcontractors and shoddy work.
Despite the unfriendly start, Mirams stayed at the company for the next 16 years.
“The culture at Multiplex, when I started, was work hard and play harder,” she says. “And it was very addictive. You wanted to be at work.”
Although she’s never worked as a tradesperson, Mirams says the culture inside a site office can be as outdated as on the stereotypical construction site. One particular problem is presenteeism.
In her time at Multiplex, anyone leaving the office at 5pm faced the half-serious question of whether they’d put in a leave pass. That makes many women leave, she says.
“They’re not pregnant, they don’t have a partner,” she says. “But they say: ‘I need to change, while I’m young enough to have a second career where I can have a family and have a career.’ And that’s wrong. We’re losing a lot of women, we’re not getting a lot of women that we should be getting because of our long, inconsistent work hours.”
We actually need to fix the industry for men and women [to] benefit.
The numbers indicate she’s right. Figures from federal government agency WGEA show women last year accounted for just under 30 per cent of professionals in construction, below the economy-wide average of 54 per cent.
But it’s not just about fixing things for women, Mirams points out.
“If you’re sitting in your office and you’re looking at dads around you working at five o’clock or six o’clock there is a mum who has left work to pick up kids or isn’t working so she can pick up kids,” she says. “We actually need to fix the industry for men and women [to] benefit.”
When Mirams returned to work after maternity leave – she has one child with husband Paul Mirams, a property partner at Korda Mentha – the situation at her first employer became untenable.
“Multiplex didn’t want to give me my old job back,” she says. “They [said] the guy that was doing your job might resign. I said: ‘Yeah, that’s called illegal.’”
That was when Lendlease called.
“We know you’re a returning mum, we know you’re doing reduced hours but we want you to come and run a big business unit,” was the message.
Mirams left Multiplex and became Lendlease’s general manager of NSW and ACT constructions.
There’s irony in the fact that Mirams’ boss is Andrew Roberts, a son of the West Australian family that founded Multiplex.
“The culture that I described at Multiplex in the late ’90s was the industry as well and it hasn’t really moved with the times whereas we had an opportunity to reset it and go, ‘you know, what is that right?’,” she says. “It’s pretty hard to change an entrenched culture in an organisation.”
Our six-day working week is stopping women from working, full stop.
But she makes it clear being hostage to history doesn’t let them – or anyone – off the hook.
“You’ve got to keep trying to do it better, right? Keep reinventing.”
We’re having a light lunch – just three dishes that we pick at, plus edamame. Mirams, heading out for an afternoon wedding of a colleague of her husband – doesn’t drink. In fact, she doesn’t even drink coffee.
“I don’t drink it. I’m a boring lunch date, aren’t I? My parents drank tea, so I never got the taste for coffee.”
If Mirams’ own experiences on the professional side of the building world motivate her push for change, her efforts are most visible in the world of trades and onsite labourers. That is, the very visible, highly politicised and sometimes brutal edge of construction.
The gender gap is even starker on site. The WGEA data shows in construction trades and technical work, women make up just 4.8 per cent of the workforce. They account for 28.3 per cent of the construction labour workforce.
Mirams says construction’s reliance on six-day weeks keeps women not just out of construction but, as the fourth-biggest industry by workforce (after the caring industries, professional services and retail) with 1.1 million workers last year, it keeps a lot of them out of the paid economy generally.
“We are bad at bringing women into construction,” she says. “But our six-day working week is stopping women from working, full stop. Think about the impact if we change to five days a week.”
She says there are financial benefits to making changes, too. Insurance underwriters have responded favourably to Roberts’ management of risk, Mirams says. Although she declines to talk about premiums.
Our time is coming to an end and Mirams has to leave. She puts back on the iWatch she’d removed during our lunch – her schedule is reasserting itself.
I ask if she ever doubts herself.
“Do I doubt whether the change we’re pushing is right or wrong?,” she shoots back. “No. Do I doubt whether the industry will embrace it? Yeah. Of course, because I can’t force people to do something. And ultimately people have to believe in it to make it happen.”
Nobu, Crown Sydney
Yellowtail jalapeno, $32
Spicy miso chips with tuna, $18
Baby tiger prawn tempura with creamy spicy sauce, $32
Long black, $6