Succeeding in a man’s world
Sonia Ramachandran 
More women are venturing into the male-dominated construction and property development industry

WOMEN are increasing their participation in the property and construction industries, long thought to be a male domain, with many serving as developers, contractors, engineers, quantity surveyors and architects.

They are said to make up between 13 and 18% of the construction industry, and the numbers are rising steadily.

FocusM research reveals that among property companies listed on Bursa Malaysia, women make up 31 executive directors, two executive chairmen, one deputy chairman, one vice-chairman three managing directors, and one deputy managing director.

In the case of listed construction companies, they make up 16 executive directors, one group deputy managing director and one group finance director (see table).

Women in Property and Construction

The increasing number of women holding senior executive positions in management and the boards of construction and property companies also prompted the 2015 establishment of an association – Women in Construction Malaysia – for them (see sidebar).

One of the earliest pioneers to forge a path for women in construction and property development was Puan Sri Chook Yew Chong Wen, 96.

The former executive chairman of Selangor Properties Bhd ventured into the field at a time when it was not considered de rigueur for women to do so.

She co-founded Selangor Properties with her late husband Wen Tien Kuang in 1963 when it was officially incorporated. However, the company’s roots can be traced as far as a decade earlier.

Its earliest projects included the UK Heights and Bukit Tunku developments in Kuala Lumpur that have retained their exclusivity and stood the test of time.

At the time, Chook single-handedly managed all aspects of the operations herself and was said to be a hands-on leader who was very particular even of the smallest details.

The low profile matriarch retired from the board on Dec 27, last year.

Then there are the daughters and sisters who take after their famous fathers and brothers in the property industry.

While some may say that the family link for these women were stepping stones that helped launch their careers, success still comes only to those who earn it.


Sibling connection

A prime example is property developer Adenland Group of Companies director Clarissa WL Wong.

Clarissa says it is no easy feat to enter an industry where women are sometimes not taken seriously


She says her brother Datuk Seri Eric WT Wong, a director and co-founder of the group, is one of the reasons she is in the business.

She says it is no easy feat to enter an industry where women are sometimes not taken seriously.

“The property industry is indeed a man’s world, and the only way to be in it and survive is by proving your mettle.

“You have to do your job well and your homework. I had to make sure I proved myself and that I didn’t give them [the men] room or opportunities to find any shortcomings in me,” says Clarissa.

She chose to enter the field due to its potential compared to other types of businesses. “I also enjoyed the challenge of proving myself in a male-dominated industry.

“Whenever a woman says something or brings something to the table, she is sometimes not taken seriously.

“I have also encountered some men who are not keen to do business with a woman.

“In such instances, I have to think out of the box and find ways to get them to accept that I am here to do business, and am good at my job,” she says.

While Clarissa agrees there are more women getting involved in property development, she says it is more in the management and back-end of property development and not so much in the project side of the business.

Asked if she would allow her only daughter to enter the field, Clarissa says: “I would prefer she marries a man who loves and spoils her to bits and who does not allow or need her to work. But if she is keen to join this line, I will encourage and support her.”


Property daughters

The apple never falls far from the tree, and thus there are daddy’s girls who follow their illustrious fathers’ footsteps.

When you are equipped with the right knowledge and know how, people will look up to you, says Lip Kim

They include Selangor Dredging Bhd managing director Teh Lip Kim, daughter of the company’s founder, the late Teh Kien Toh.

The family theme is also evident in construction and property group Ireka Corp Bhd. Its group deputy managing director Monica Lai Voon Huey and executive director Lai Man Moi are the daughter and sister respectively of the company’s executive chairman and founder Datuk Lai Siew Wah.

Then there is the father-daughter team at MK Land Holdings Bhd where veteran property developer and co-founder Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal Bakar has, in recent years, handed the reins over to Felina Mustapha Kamal, who is now the executive chairman.

Country Heights Holdings Bhd is another company that has a father-daughter team with deputy chairman and director Lee Cheng Wen being the daughter of the founder and executive chairman Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew.

Meantime, Plenitude Bhd executive chairman Chua Elsie is an example of a woman who has made her mark in property development, having been appointed to the board in 2002.

It is important, Charmaine says, for women not to set "glass ceilings" but use passion and perseverance to pursue the careers they want

Another is Titijaya Land Bhd executive director Charmaine Lim Puay Fung, the daughter of its group managing director Tan Sri Lim Soon Peng.

Selangor Dredging’s Lip Kim says it was “perseverance” that allowed her to make it in a man’s world.

“When I took over as managing director in July 1998, the tin market had collapsed and it was no longer viable to continue mining. On top of that, it was the height of the Asian financial crisis.

“I could have thrown up my hands and let the company crumble but I opted to do something else – consolidate the business – and hopefully put it back on the path to profitability,” she says.

She also took risks when needed and always trusted her intuition.

Lip Kim says she faced many challenges in making her mark in the industry. Citing the 2008-2009 US sub-prime financial meltdown, she says that for nine months, the company failed to sell a single apartment or house.

“At that point, I could have done what most developers did and held back all new projects to conserve resources. Instead, I decided to launch a new project – Five Stones,” she says.

The project cost the company an additional RM20-RM30 mil just for the sub-structure.

But Five Stones in SS2, Petaling Jaya, turned out to be a major success, with all 377 units sold within months, giving them the impetus to ride out the financial crisis and launch other projects.

“The success was made that much sweeter as it was a project that was entirely ours – from concept to design and execution,” she says.


Knowledge and know-how

Lip Kim says she never faced any gender bias. “I believe that when you are equipped with the right knowledge and know-how, people will look up to you.”

She advises women venturing into the field to be passionate about what they do and to work with diligence, integrity and never stop learning.

Titijaya’s Charmaine says a successful career does not come easy for anyone, especially women.

This, she says, is because society generally believes they should end up as homemakers while men take the lead in the family, be it financially or in decision making.

“To prove to the world that we are as good as men, we have to break the common prejudices against women and prove our abilities, given the existing bias in many work cultures,” she says.

Charmaine says she was fortunate to get into the family business 10 years ago as the industry is “traditionally male-dominated”.

“The reality is that when you are surrounded by men, at first you will feel you have to prove yourself and once you have done that, it will be fine,” she says.

It is important, Charmaine says, for women not to set “glass ceilings”, and accept that the industry is male-dominated. Instead, they should use passion and perseverance to pursue the careers they want.


Recognise your talent

Having started her career in property development as a marketing executive for Titijaya Group in 2003, she says: “I hope women will recognise their talents, expertise and skills, and be results-oriented, instead of looking at gender,” she says.

She says it was her father who inspired her to join the property industry. “My father took my brother and me along to many business functions and events.

“Our participation in some of them allowed us to learn by listening to the dialogues and discussions,” she says.

Charmaine says there has to be creativity and innovation for one to make a mark in the property industry, and that gender bias has never bothered her.

“When we are working on a project, it is always about delivering results rather than thinking about whether it should be handled by a man or woman,” she says.

Gender bias, she says, may exist in most corporations, but if the top-most company management exhibits gender diversity in decision making, it will trickle down and eliminate discrimination.

Then there are those who make their presence felt entirely on their own, rather than join the family business.

One such gutsy lady is quantity surveyor Dr Wan Maimun Wan Abdullah, who received the Construction Industry Development Board’s Construction Leading Lady Award in 2014.

A director of construction firm Ahmad Zaki Sdn Bhd, Wan Maimun joined the Public Works Department upon graduation.

“The construction industry is the only one that I am familiar with and I love being a quantity surveyor involved in construction and being part of a project team,” she says.

She says the major challenge for her was balancing a successful career and family life.

“We want to work our guts out and have a successful career, fight for what we believe, and at the end of the day go home to a happy and loving family.

“But as a woman, the constant juggling of roles such as daughter, wife, mother and caregiver is a challenge that requires superhuman effort.

“It calls for planning, scheduling, multitasking, having a positive attitude and support from family and friends [and a good maid to do the housework!],” she says.

Only with all these in place was she able to involve herself in professional institutions and company boards, and focus on issues in the construction industry.


Many facets

She notes that there are more women getting involved in the construction industry as it offers many facets of the business.

“If being a contractor is not your cup of tea, then there are other equally interesting areas.

“This includes being developers, manufacturers, suppliers, consultants, specialists, construction lawyers, as clients, or even working within the statutory authorities or financial institutions,” says Wan Maimun.

On whether she faced any gender bias, she says she just did what was required of her in the job to the best of her ability.

“I realised that once you proved yourself to be someone who performs and delivers, nobody can take that away from you.

For civil, electrical and mechanical contractor Norel Rais, the journey to be accepted in a man’s world was a hard one.

Most construction workers are men who sometimes ignore a woman's voice, says Norel


“I worked hard to overcome the challenges in the industry. I learnt to stay calm and strong in handling clients and workers, especially men at the construction site.

“Most of them at the site are male, and they sometimes just ignored our voice.

“Working hours are unpredictable – sometimes I don’t have time for my family or to give myself a treat,” says Norel, who is a director and major shareholder of Pembinaan & Letrik Mals Sdn Bhd.

She says it is even worse when she has to travel outstation and leave her family for long periods.

Norel says she opted for the career as “it was the best opportunity for me to earn a better living instead of working with others”.

“I found it difficult initially but with some guidance from my husband and project manager, I managed to handle everything smoothly,” she says.

She says she has faced gender bias in her profession and advises women entering the construction industry to be strong physically and mentally to handle all situations.

Women, she says, also need to ensure they are knowledgeable, able to handle a big organisation and have the ability “to be a leader in a man’s world”.

Brigade of hard hats in high heels

THE idea to have an association for women in the construction industry had its roots at the Konvensyen Usahanita Binaan (Kubina), an annual gathering of women professionals in the construction industry.

The inaugural Kubina convention was held on Sept 18, 2014. It was then that the participants realised there were many women in the field and a resolution was tabled to set up an association for women in the construction industry.

Wan Maimun wants women to be treated like how the bumiputera were treated after independence

In January 2015, quantity surveyor Dr Wan Maimun Wan Abdullah was approached to become president of Women in Construction Malaysia (WIBM). The body was incorporated with the Registrar of Societies at the end of the same month.

“We knew there were many women consultants in the construction industry, but we were unaware there were many women contractors,” she tells FocusM.

WIBM now has over 50 members who include developers, consultants, suppliers, manufacturers and contractors.

Wan Maimun says the numbers are not very high because of the conditions attached to the membership.

This includes owning a firm or being in a position of authority in the organisation.

One of the things on her agenda is for WIBM to have its own building.

“We had a workshop on Nov 3, 2015, together with the Construction Industry Development Board where we came up with a 12-point resolution.

“Key among them was for us to have our own iconic building designed and built purely by women.

“When I tell people about this, they laugh. They ask if the skilled labourers will also be women? What we are saying is that we want it to be managed by women,” she says.

Another item on WIBM’s wish list is for preferential treatment and more opportunities and tenders for women.

“We want women treated like how the bumiputera were treated after independence. They were given benefits to ensure they would be on an equal footing with the other races.

“So why not do that for women too? Put aside a certain percentage of tenders just for women.

“We feel this is fair as we make up only 13-18% of the construction industry. We are not on a level playing field as yet,” she says.

For now, WIBM’s main aim is to increase the organisation’s visibility.

Its agenda includes highlighting issues plaguing women in the industry so as to raise them with the authorities. “Individually our voice may not be heard, but collectively it will.”

Apart from providing networking opportunities to those in the industry, WIBM is reaching out to students to show them the opportunities in the construction industry via a student mentoring programme.

“There is a group of us and we call ourselves the ‘Hard hats in high heels brigade’, and we give career talks to female students in schools.

“We started by giving talks on not being scared to be in the construction industry. We say, ‘Look at us. We are a prime example of women who have succeeded in this industry’,” says Wan Maimun. 

Associations should be gender, colour and religion blind

THOUGH Women in Construction Malaysia (WIBM) advocates preferential treatment, especially when it comes to bidding for tenders, not all women stakeholders agree with that view.

Royal Institution of Surveyors Malaysia president Datuk Lau Wai Seang says the synergy of the members of a professional institution determines how the institution moves forward in the future.

Lau feels the composition of professional bodies should not be dictated by gender, colour or religion

“This strength is drawn regardless of the race, religion, age or gender of its members as the varied background of its members will provide a balanced outlook towards the matters that are deliberated,” she says.

Though Lau agrees that most professional institutions are presently headed by men, she says the situation is changing.

“Going by the increasing involvement of women professionals as well as the larger proportion of female students in institutions of higher learning, in time there will be more women heading professional institutions,” she says.

PI Architect principal Datuk Tan Pei Ing says: “The objective of WIBM is to increase and elevate the participation of women in the building industry.

“I joined WIBM as a member a couple of years ago, but I admit I am not an active member due to my other commitments,” says Tan, the recipient of the Construction Industry Development Board’s Construction Leading Lady Award in 2015.

Tan says there were suggestions for her to establish a separate women’s section when she was the president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects, but she decided against the idea. Incidentally, she became the first female president in 2001.

“I want to be recognised for my ability as an architect and not be differentiated because of my gender.

“Having a women’s section will send a message that we are different and want to be treated differently. We are all architects irrespective of gender and should be given equal opportunities,” she says.

On whether women should be given handouts and preferential treatment to be on an equal footing with men in the building industry, Tan says: “In principle, I don’t believe in handouts and preferential treatment.

“I also don’t believe in quota systems as it encourages people who are not really qualified to be selected for positions.”

However, Tan recognises the current disparity and says more concrete action should be taken to provide the infrastructure and support systems to assist and encourage female participation in the industry.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.