Diversity & Inclusion

WiC: Aleksandra Ceranic, MZ Architects interview

Aleksandra Ceranic, MZ Architects on the construction industry, multitasking and Alice Walker

Following Middle East Consultant’s special edition dedicated to women in the construction industry, MECN.com’s sister publication continues to share the inspiration and experiences of women working in the male-dominated industry across the GCC. Here, we catch up with Aleksandra Ceranic, architect at MZ Architects.

What drove you to get into construction and your very first role in the industry? What were some of the influences that set you on your path?

The prestige satisfaction that this industry offers by giving you the power of transforming vision into reality, is what got me to choose architecture, but my first role is a funny story indeed. After reading a new and not so clear job opening for an architect in my hometown, I went for an interview expecting to step in the architectural office, but I had entered a construction site instead. I stayed out of curiosity and spent the next two years in execution of 360 residential apartments, being the only female in between more than 300 male employees.

Even though I was in the site office, the prospect of being the only women on a building site was challenging and awakening. Being persistent is what kept me on the path and now I am glad for having that experience as the rest came much less intimidating.

Share a brief about your career, mentioning key achievements with regards to your role.

I grew a lot with this first project and having a part in building two residential blocks from the ground up, that are now home to some of my friends. I still have a great feeling of accomplishment whenever I meat somebody there over a coffee.

Working in the GCC for ten years has brought me good opportunities to shine in our industry. I must say that with the current status of construction on a global level, having projects actually built during my life time, is something I did not expect to have when I started the career. One of the projects I am proud of being involved in/leading the team is the residential Sail tower, currently being finalised in Al Raha beach next to ALDAR HQ and Yas creative hub that was awarded for the best project of the year by the 20202 Middle East Consultant Awards.

Besides fairness and being the right thing to do, diversity in the construction industry is important because of the value women can bring to employers, clients and customers. How have you made your mark in the industry working on projects specifically (your proudest moment)?

With the attention to details and congenital ability to multitask, women’s approach when solving the problem is to bring all ideas together, which gives fruitful results. My proudest moment here in UAE was when I sat in a room with Becky Anderson, to talk through CNNs vision on offices we were designing for them.

What are some of the barriers to women entering the construction industry? What was your personal experience?

Expect that you will have to prove yourself, as there is a certain prejudice, especially towards young women in construction. My personal experience is very positive, if you count on having sufficient patience to overcome those first moments.

Another barrier that women face is the time off they take for maternity leave. I must say that my company has given me an amazing flexibility and support in coming back to work, but in the same way I had to keep up with demanding assignments. There is a window for improvement on this subject, in other companies I know.

The GCC construction sector is still male dominated, however diversity is beginning to increase. If you agree with this statement, comment on what is driving this and how you see the GCC markets changing in the coming years? If you do not agree with the statement, please share your thoughts/views of the market.

I definitely agree with diversity being something this country has demonstrated progress in and has overcome my expectations. I have many female colleagues in all levels. The drive to this change is the country’s awareness to importance of the matter, that it is spoken publicly about it, this article being one of the references, women in construction awards categories etc.

Everyone has a part to play in diversity and equal pay. What would you like to see government authorities and construction firms do to increase diversity and make pay a level playing field?

Speaking as a very recent mother, I would like to see the maternity and paternity leave being equalised and to give the opportunity to both parents to choose who will be absent from work and who will take care of the newborn. This would remove certain withholding of employees to hire or assign projects to young/recently married women. It is a very particular vision, but in a such dynamic working environment as construction is, being away for several months might seem like a big deal.

Besides authorities and construction firms, who else can play a part in increasing diversity and balancing pay scales?

I believe this industry is the one with pay gap on the narrow side, comparing to others. However, if somebody can make things move – it is women themselves, by showing capability and without the need for somebody to empower us. To quote Alice Walker – “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

I also believe that schools, by highlighting the advantages of construction jobs, can have an important role in female seeing this industry as viable career path, hence increase diversity.

As a woman in the industry, what has your experience been working in the GCC construction sector? If you have worked in markets outside the GCC, how does your experience here compare with what you’ve experienced and observed in other markets?

The UAE has definitely given me the biggest opportunities to be part of amazing projects, something that is very difficult in any other market, especially for young professionals.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge women in the construction sector face in GCC countries? How can these challenges be addressed?

When choosing a career here or anywhere else, the construction sector may be intimidating for women, as it is male-dominant industry and I believe there is room for improvement in that vision people have when thinking about this sector. If you as a young girl have opportunity to see, meet and get to know many females in construction, you would feel welcomed and encouraged to embark on that journey.

Part of the trainee program in cooperation with Abu Dhabi University, we’ve had a few female students in MZ Architects over a couple of months. This has been a sneak peek for them on what to expect after university. This made me realise that this is the great way to overcome the challenges women face in this industry – by meeting other female that are already on the way.

In doing your job, what sort of discrimination (if any) have you faced and how did you/employer address it?

I must say MZ Architects is putting myself and other colleagues regardless of the gender to work with all types of clients. I’ve personally worked with big and small local and international companies and with many men and women. I have never felt passed over for a role, due to gender.

Unlike in the UAE, there were some moments during my previous GCC experience where I had an impression that I was given certain assignments/projects because I was a woman. I’m not sure if this would be discrimination, but I did not like the feeling.

Do you feel there’s a limit with regards to how far you can progress within MZ Architects?

No, and I am speaking this from the heart. The nurturing environment inside our company is giving equal opportunity to everyone to advance.

How does MZ Architects approach diversity in the workplace? What more can your firm do to increase diversity?

There is a funny, against stereotypes kind of balance in between two sister companies that work closely: MZ Architects that is led by a man and with staff being predominately women and TAG INTERIORS being led by a woman and with vast majority of male workers. One would expect things to be reverse. You really cannot feel any imbalance, except when football is organised as social event and only the men are invited.

How do you personally push for diversity and equal pay in the construction sector? Are you involved in any groups/councils etc. that focus on increasing diversity and equal pay?

Having very positive experience in this industry, I must admit I am not a loud advocate on the topic, so my influence is localised to my circle of acquaintances – to spread the good word on the position you can reach and the work satisfaction you get. I had the opportunity to discuss the challenges of the industry with several ladies that were hesitant to pursue careers in the sector and now they are my colleagues, hence I feel that I’ve influenced the rate of diversity positively.

When it comes to equal pay, I have a good personal reference with my husband working in the same industry. From that firsthand comparison throughout the years, I can say I am satisfied with the level of balance.

What advice would you give to a woman entering the GCC construction industry today?

If you are up to having exciting tasks every day, this is the career for you and your effort will be rewarded on project completion when you think “we made that happen”. Enjoy the good company as teamwork comes with every project. Continue proving yourself with your expertise and show that the quality or performance has nothing to do with gender – equal pay will follow.

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