When Christina Knorr faces a mountain, she scales it as effortlessly as a hill. She is the embodiment of what it looks like when women find opportunities to excel in the construction industry. She is. She is a director, a fire safety engineer, and a mother who is intelligent, resourceful and unafraid to be the only woman in the room. Her path was not paved for her and her success was forged through dedication and persistence.
AN AMBITIOUS INTUITION AND GOALS OF ADVENTURE-SEEKING
After her family emigrated to Germany from Russia as a teenager, she began studying for a Mechanical Engineering degree. However, her ambitious intuition knew that in order to get a good job, she needed a good level of English. So, she sought opportunities that would allow her to obtain the well-rounded education she knew was essential to her success. One of which came about when she and her partner decided to take a working and holiday visa to Australia. Excited to backpack around the country whilst learning English along the way, misfortune struck the two adventurers only a few days into their travels and their car was stolen along with all of their belongings. Without the finances to buy a new one, they had a choice to make - find jobs immediately or give up and go back to Germany. However, quitting isn’t in Christina’s vocabulary, so they found jobs as waiters and committed to achieving their goals in Australia, no matter the unfortunate circumstances.
THE ONLY FEMALE IN THE ROOM
Despite her initial plans being derailed and she found herself busy waiting tables to make ends meet, Christina never gave up on her true passion for engineering. So, she approached a local university to continue her studies. And although her English speaking skills had made some progress, the course coordinator told her in no uncertain terms that because of the level of her English, “you will never graduate”. What could have been a life-changing setback, instead made her more motivated than ever. She enrolled and on her very first day, arrived at the lecture hall to discover that she was the only female in the room. Met again with more doubt, the lecturer took one look at her and said “the architecture course is next door.” He had falsely assumed that a woman wouldn’t be enrolled in Mechanical Engineering and Christina’s English wasn’t at a level that she could even explain to the lecturer that she was indeed in the right room. Nevertheless, she took her seat in that class and began learning the technical side of a complex subject in a language that was almost entirely foreign to her. After a year of overcoming these significant obstacles, she was made student representative and by the end of her degree, she graduated with first-class honors.
Christina secured her first 3-month internship in a water desalination center in Western Australia, However, the timing could not have been worse. She was engaged and her wedding in 2012 was only a month away. Not wanting to jeopardize her chances of doing the best job she could on her internship, she flew inter-state for her own wedding over the course of a weekend, and was back in the office on Monday, and no one was the wiser. When Christina shared this memory with me, it reiterated to me that this was a woman who wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way.
After her internship, Christina landed her first role in Mechanical Engineering and later, found an opportunity in a profession of which she had never heard of; Fire Safety Engineering.
Christina found Fire Safety to be an incredibly diverse job in the construction industry. On any given day she worked in design, construction, renovation, housing inspections as well as litigations which meant becoming an expert witness in court. She had become well versed in building defects and knowledgeable on how to preserve buildings without demolishing them. She also worked alongside architects to determine how they can achieve compliance and how they can modify buildings whilst keeping them safe. Thrilled by the diversity of her many roles, Christina’s career goals were solidified; she wanted to become a fire engineer.
TAKING POWER INTO HER OWN HANDS
One day, a recruiter approached her with a new job opportunity. Christina says “I didn’t meet any criteria, not a single one. But, I needed a new job”. The firm was a specialized fire engineering consultancy in Sydney, who were the pioneers and the most knowledgeable people in Fire Safety in the country. However, the interview didn’t go her way. The questions that were asked didn’t allow her an opportunity to showcase her experience properly. Frustrated that evening, and innately knowing that she would be an asset to this company, she wrote them an email that outlined why she was right for the role. Incredibly, she was offered the job starting immediately. This is yet another example where Christina took the power into her own hands and determined her own future.
She started as a Junior Fire Safety Engineer, whilst also undertaking her master’s degree. Within five years, she was promoted to team leader, leading a team of nine young engineers. As she rose through the ranks, the pressure to speak in front of large groups increased. After her first experience of public speaking was, in her words, terrible, she joined Toastmasters, a nonprofit educational organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of promoting communication, public speaking, and leadership. Quickly she gained the confidence to take on speaking roles at conferences and seminars across Australia. As a natural problem solver, when an obstacle presents itself, Christina always finds a way.
BEING A PREGNANT WOMAN IN CONSTRUCTION
The next challenge of her life was fast approaching, motherhood. Raising a baby in a small, Sydney apartment didn’t appeal to Christina. They decided that Cairns, a tropical wonderland in Northern Queensland, would be where they start a family. For the next 6 months, she juggled fortnightly flights to Sydney, being a team leader, an expert witness and a fire safety engineer, all whilst being pregnant. Eventually, enough was enough. By this stage, Christina was well established as an expert in her field and decided to take the leap and open her own consultancy business. For the past two years, Christina has positioned herself as the only Fire Safety Firm in Cairns and has worked on integrating with the local construction industry to gain clients.
Being pregnant whilst working in the construction industry comes with its own set of challenges, but Christina says that the support she received was overwhelmingly positive, especially from men. From endless congratulations to contractors helping her up ladders when she was eight months pregnant, she was surprised by how supportive the community was.
EMBRACING OBSTACLES AS OPPORTUNITIES
For anyone looking to get into the construction industry, Christina believes that being a female is actually an advantage. Women tend to be better relationship builders, as well as bringing a different perspective to a company. Obstacles will always present themselves and life is essentially a long series of problems to solve. Christina is a prime example of making lemonade from lemons. Put yourself out there, consciously work on improving yourself through education and trust in your ability to do a job, regardless of being a woman. As someone that has fought gender roles, language barriers and starting a life and business in a country halfway across the world from her own, Christina has shown what can be possible when you see obstacles as opportunities.