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Timber & transformation: Her story

The discourse around gender inequality and sexism around the world and across all sectors is exploding; we’re seeing massive support for gender equality from all walks of life, but we’re also seeing troubling ideologies from respected figures rapidly coming to light.

Our Main Konyn, Jennifer Rees, was interviewed by Timber iQ last year for their Women’s Month feature, titled, Top Women in Timber. This article was published just a few weeks before the then-CEO of a prominent South African engineering institute laid bare his hugely problematic views on social media about women entering and participating in ‘traditionally male’ work environments, questioning the worthiness of investing in attracting women to STEM arenas and deducing for us all that women are better wired for ‘caring’ professions and/or staying at home to raise their offspring.

Disappointing as it is, this world view is not uncommon and still exists in surprising places, which is why we must, at all costs, keep this conversation alive.

While our Main Konyn doesn’t consider herself an active participant in the timber sector, she is proud to communicate to the world the many virtues of this remarkable material and to add her voice to one of many promoting equality wherever, however they may be in the world. Thanks to the lovely people at Interact Media Defined for the opportunity.

How did you enter the timber sector?

My entry into the timber sector was quite unplanned. After completing my MA in English Studies with a focus on gender studies at the University of Stellenbosch, I felt it was time to enter the work force, which I did as the editor at Trademax Publications, overseeing SA Affordable Housing and SA Roofing magazines, two well-respected construction trade publications. While construction trade publishing had never really been on my career radar before, the industry quickly began to feel like home and a year later, in 2012, I was part of the team that launched Timber iQ to the market. Being this title’s editor gave me invaluable exposure and access to the local timber trade.

Please share in detail what your role is in the industry?

During my tenure as Managing Editor of Timber iQ, I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about timber, its versatility for design and construction, and very importantly, the inimitable properties that support its status as a naturally greener material with which to design and build. Something else I became aware of during this time, was the disparity between the superb, world-class skills and products coming out of this sector in South Africa and a gap in the in the marketing and promotion thereof; at the time, I felt it was long overdue for the timber industry to be more bold in telling its stories.

Thus, Haas&DAS Communications (H&D) was conceived in 2014 with the vision to see timber and timber construction take its rightful place in the media. At the time, I felt that timber as a material and construction methodology was not sufficiently visible in both trade and consumer publications; with the belief that a larger share of the trade and public would invest in this material if it occupied more room in the media (social, digital, print and broadcast), H&D endeavoured to confront and erode the boundaries to timber and timber construction’s access to market, one press release at a time.

My role, therefore, as Director of H&D, is to help tell my clients’ stories to – and facilitate dialogue with – the right people through strategic public relations and marketing activities. As an avid promoter of an industry – and a building material – I believe in and, in good conscience, can stand behind, my role at H&D was a natural career progression.

As a woman in the industry, how has your experience been?

I am very sensitive to the challenges faced by women, not only in the sector, but at home, in the workplace and in the world, especially at such a uniquely fraught juncture in our global story. Campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have made profound ripples in awareness around gender inequality, sexual harassment and the culture of unquestionable patriarchy that has over centuries come to normalise these. I fully support these campaigns and their mandates to make the world better, safer and more equal for women. While the construction sector in South Africa is still very clearly male-steered, I have only mostly (Ed.) experienced the sector as welcoming, helpful and open to change.

Would you say transformation is taking place in the sector? If yes, how?

The wheel is slow to turn, but I believe it is turning. While government can offer the private sector a framework for transformation, it is incumbent upon the players in the sector to meet these criteria, not just for the sake of compliance, but to create meaningful and sustainable opportunities for diversity, growth and advancement of the industry and its players. I am aware of a number of programmes in the construction sector, both formal and informal, that aim to give previously disadvantaged youth a leg up into the industry; some even aim to produce self-sufficient entrepreneurs through learnership programmes, who will then return to their communities to start their own businesses and share their knowledge and skills.

As the saying goes, “A closed hand cannot receive.” I believe being open to transformation is being open to opportunity.

How best can we further transform the timber market to be more inclusive?

I believe that school learning, training and learnerships are essential to the transformation process in the sector. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly blinkered to the value of a tertiary education that is not offered by a university, which can make vocational training seem like a lesser alternative, or simply not even a worthwhile option. South African colleges have a number of excellent vocational training avenues which need to be heavily promoted as viable and sound pathways to access self-fulfillment and real economic mobility. Players in the public and private spheres of the sector should prioritise learnerships and apprenticeships, and take good care of the reputation of the industries they will leave to future generations.

Parents and guardians, hand in hand with primary and secondary schools, have an obligation to their children to identify and hone talents and skills at an early age, and to guide them towards training, apprenticeships, learnership programmes or formal studies that are the best fit for them.

What are the current challenges that you face in the sector?

The prevailing economic and political climate in South Africa is making itself felt in the industry with local and international investment carrying tenuous undertones. It is especially important when it comes to timber products and construction (or any construction, for that matter), that quality standards are maintained, regulations are adhered to and stakeholders uphold their respective roles and responsibilities in the value chain. During less certain economic times, it can be tempting to opt for lower quality products or workmanship, or to take short cuts; both the public and the trade should avoid taking this route and be on high alert for such activity.

From a media perspective, a more tense economic and political climate encourages a heightened subscription to the 24-hour news cycle, which can become all-consuming and can blur the boundaries between good, well-researched content and the newly-popularised ‘fake news’. It is up to the industries who create content to do so responsibly and within the confines of ethical journalistic practice; conversely, consumers of media should also do so responsibly, call out unsubstantiated claims in the content they consume and keep perspective on what constitutes sound and rational discourse.

What have been your achievements thus far in timber?

I am proud to have been part of the team that launched Timber iQ, which was in response to a strong call from the market to develop a proudly South African title, with international flair, that would offer both a technical and beautiful view of timber in design and construction. In my pursuit of enhancing the visibility and reputation of the trade through savvy public relations and marketing, I have been selected for and have taken up a number of courses and programmes, which have been completed with distinction. These include entrepreneurial programmes, digital marketing courses and more recently, a consolidation course in public relations. H&D was also recently nominated for the African Construction Awards in the Media & Communications category, an achievement I share squarely with my valued clients.

What are your personal goals in the sector? How do you aim to improve the industry?

Personally, I strive to learn more about timber as a construction material as well as the details of local market complexity, which I think could pave the way for more personalised and targeted communications for timber’s message to market. I am interested in the potential of harnessing more diverse timber material offerings, like cross laminated timber (CLT) and full-scale prefabricated timber homes to intelligently respond to South Africa’s (and many developing countries’) desperate need for dignified, durable housing options with quick delivery times. Developing a culture that readily accepts and values timber as a legitimate housing option not only for the wealthy will play a tremendous role in shifting attitudes towards the material, which will impact both public and private spend, ultimately tipping the scales of feasibility to make building with timber even more accessible. The economic and environmental benefits for a timber-favouring culture are manifold. In short, I am excited to play even a small role through public relations and marketing in helping to shift people’s attitudes towards timber as a high quality, durable and accessible building material backed by world-class expertise right here in South Africa.

How can women change the sector in your opinion?

“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back,” says young heroine, advocate for girls’ rights to education and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, who as a young girl survived a directed attack from the Taliban in her home town in Pakistan. The time is ripe for women who are already in the sector to influence its current reputation as a male-dominated sphere, drive the gender equality and equal pay agendas and transform the sector into one that is accessible to all who not only want in, but are prepared to work for it.

Greater representation of women in the sector is not only a priority for the demographical change we seek, but an essential component of bringing different perspectives to the industry; diverse views and experiences are key factors in breaking down ‘group think’ and encourage much-needed innovation.

As the mother of a little girl, I am struck daily by the many outside forces that jostle to tell her (and me!) how she should dress, behave and play, and by all accounts what career path she should pursue one day as a girl. As such, I believe a profound force in transforming an industry is also raising little people (both boys and girls) to expect nothing less than equality, equal reward for equal efforts, to be unencumbered by the media’s examples and teachings of how boys and girls should be in the world and to encourage girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). New and successive generations entering the workforce who intrinsically value gender equality on all fronts, are sensitive to privilege and the converse, and do not view career choice as contingent upon one’s gender, will embody and drive transformation for a better, more diverse and equal industry.

Feel free to connect with Jennifer here or email jennifer@hassndas.co.za.