8 March 2024

International Women's Day

Rail Project Victoria's near-decade-long journey has helped transform Victoria’s rail network thanks to projects that we’re extremely proud of. Our people have made this possible, which is why we’ve taken particular pride in our annual celebration of the Women Of RPV.

Kylie Smith

Independence, creativity and the pursuit of true equality are strong drivers for Metro Tunnel Project's Media and Corporate Communications Manager.

"When that load is shared equally, that will open so many more opportunities for women to actually take part in whatever they want to do."

Sitting atop Kylie Smith’s to-do list of life’s important jobs is a worthy mission: to raise teenaged sons Noah and Callum to be good men who treat all around them with respect.

Conversations about feminism and inequality are common at home, where since they hit secondary school the boys have washed their own clothes and mucked in with domestic tasks like mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms and toilets.

“When I was young my Mum said always be independent, don’t rely on a man. Equally I want my sons to understand they don’t rely on a woman to wash their clothes, cook their dinners, make sure their house is clean.”

Progress at a societal level can be slow; Kylie still hears people address little girls differently to little boys, with compliments about pretty dresses and lovely hair for one, and questions around what they’ve been doing and how their footy team is going for the other.

“So from very early in life girls see that people’s interest in them is in how they look, what they’re wearing. And boys learn that people’s interest in them is related to what they do and what they’re interested in.”

Her own childhood began in Glenroy before a rural side-step to the Macedon Ranges region she still calls home. On 10 acres at Gisborne South, Kylie and her older sister enjoyed an extended family of goats, chickens, dogs and ponies, the latter so beloved that their parents – despite being ready to downsize – wouldn’t sell the property until they’d passed on and been buried in the side paddock.

Her mother hails from Ulladulla, venue of seaside childhood holidays. Her paternal grandfather was an Irishman who became a brigadier in the British army. Kylie’s Dad was born in Lahore when it was part of British India and remembers the formality of meeting his father for the first time when he came home from the war.

Her father rose from ground engineer to flight engineer with Ansett, making Kylie and her sister “airline kids” who could find themselves upgraded to first class if there was room. On one memorable holiday, aged about 12, she flew home from Hong Kong in the cockpit jump seat.

The travel bug bit. After the first year of an Arts degree she saved her waitressing dollars and backpacked around Europe with a rail pass. “No mobile phones, no internet, you’re completely on your own.” She came home feeling guilty at not knowing a second language, so enrolled in Russian (a class shared with Transport Infrastructure Minister Danny Pearson). Degree finished, she spent six months in freshly post-Soviet Moscow.

“This was a country that had been closed off to the rest of the world. People would see you and their eyes would pop out of their heads.”

Back home, Kylie did a grad-dip at RMIT that led to a Warrnambool Standard cadetship (“a great training ground”), a stint with Leader Newspapers and then the Sunday Herald Sun. 1990s newsrooms were coarse, sink-or-swim places; amid the “toughening up”, Kylie fondly remembers a sub-editor taking the time to compliment her writing and offer ideas for improvement.

“I remember it gave me such a boost. It lifts you up to know someone is interested in you.” Now, she loves having graduates and seeing them learn and grow.

Meeting her New Zealander husband Duane led to almost five years in Auckland, where Noah was born and Kylie entered the world of government with the local council. Back in Riddells Creek it was Western Water and eventually RPV, where she deals with journalists and all things media relating to the Metro Tunnel Project.

Creativity is a constant away from the office, taking a little of her father’s engineering nous and marrying it to her mother’s sewing and embroidery skills. “Sewing is engineering with fabric, that ability to problem-solve,” says Kylie, who is the go-to at home for any DIY tasks.

She looks forward to a time when the “invisible labour” of child-rearing and housekeeping is genuinely shared by men who spend months as the primary carer of their children.

“And when that load is shared equally, that will open so many more opportunities for women to actually take part in whatever they want to do outside the home.”

Michelle Smith

RPV's Business Services Manager has had an incredible life full of varied experiences.

"As I got older and had my own children I realised the importance of them having a strong woman in their life."

Michelle Smith grew up on a Taranaki farm surrounded by the chaos that comes with being the eleventh of 12. She followed her siblings around like a puppy and rejoiced when those who’d left home returned for family gatherings.

“I had a blessed childhood really – until I hit the age of rebellion. Then no-one could tell me what to do, no-one was going to rein me in.”

She left school and had a child at 15. Michelle is Maori, and in the Whangai tradition her daughter was informally adopted by Michelle’s older brother and his wife. “She grew up knowing I was her birth mother, but she’s my niece and I’m her aunty.”

Early in her pregnancy, Michelle answered the phones at a taxi business where her Mum drove one of the three cars. As a child she dreamed of being a teacher or librarian, and for a short time worked in a bookshop.

Her path from there to RPV charts a full life. In Auckland she was office junior at a precious metal refinery, delivering bags of silver and gold granules to jewellers. She spent a year in Australia, returned to rural NZ on a deer farm, bred and showed boxer dogs and had three more children.

Back in Taranaki she coordinated night classes for a polytechnic. Moving to a day job running training for a safety company expanded her skillset unexpectedly. “I got my truck licence – if you’re going to sell a course, you need to know what you’re talking about.”

A smelter rebuild opened the door to construction and project life. “I absolutely loved it,” Michelle says, adding that having seven brothers conditioned her to being around riggers, bricklayers and scaffolders. “It was my kinda world.”

More project coordination preceded a departure of sorts – a stint in local government prompted by a yearning to cut through the bureaucracy. “I was there 10 years without making an ounce of difference.”

RPV is lucky to have her – not least because the project she moved to Melbourne for fell over within months, and Michelle had already booked a ticket home when the MMRA Business Services Manager gig landed.

“One thing I was drawn to about the role was infrastructure – being part of something that was going to make a tangible difference,” she says of a role that ranges from ensuring people have a building that’s fit to work in and the tools to do their jobs, to having coffee in the kitchen. “Which is a priority!”

Stepping into the spotlight at work isn’t her thing, although outside the office she’s a true Gemini. “At parties I’ve always got a story.”

Her own is one of strength and resilience, inspired by a mother she calls “a staunch female role model” who was punished in primary school for speaking Maori, when at the time it was the only language she knew.

“As I got older and had my own children I realised the importance of them having a strong woman in their life, and my Mum was definitely strong. She spoke her mind, which is probably where I get it from. She didn’t back down from an argument, which is probably where I get that from!

“But she was also very quick-witted with a great sense of humour. She had a big influence on me in terms of knowing what is to be a strong, independent person.”

Pip Henty

Seeking a life of purpose has taken RPV's Senior Inclusion and Wellbeing Advisor on a quest for equality.

"Inclusion isn't just gender for me, you are so much more than just one thing"

The two sides of Pip Henty’s family tree tell contrasting stories and support a realisation she had at a young age: no matter our assumptions, people are not born equal.

Her grandfather was a Jewish prisoner of war who escaped Germany for London with his mother. The English Government rounded up what they called “enemy aliens”, including her grandfather, and put him on a boat called the Dunera. He was 16, lived to 97, and never spoke of his childhood.

Her father’s forebears are hailed as an incredible colonial family who were among Victoria’s first settlers. Books have been written about the Hentys. A couple of years ago, Pip’s cousin told the other side of the story in The Guardian – of their violent seizure and occupation of Gunditjmara lands after docking at Portland Bay in 1834.

“Those two tensions for me, along with going to an all-girls school, really shaped where I went in life.”

It’s already been some journey. At 13 Pip was tutoring students her age and younger in maths and English for cash in a Camberwell church. She wanted to be a marine biologist and then a paramedic, but after breaking an ankle and proposing to the man who administered the “green whistle” of pain relief, “I realised I could never show myself in this industry again!”

She started a law degree but discovered that wasn’t a good fit either. “I wanted to study something that would better me as a person, I didn’t really think about a career.”

An Arts degree majoring in gender sexuality diversity “was the first place I existed where I felt my gender didn’t disadvantage me”. Volunteering with WIRE (Women’s Information Referral Exchange) brought contact with women experiencing domestic violence. A longing to make a difference crystallised.

“I remember thinking, if this is what it’s like in somewhere like Australia, what’s it like overseas?”

She soon found out. Pip’s Master's of International Development focused on women encountering violent extremism in Tajikistan, before a stint with the International Women’s Development Agency segued into six years with the Humanitarian Advisory Group.

A global picture of inequality formed: women dying in the Indonesian tsunami because they couldn’t swim; women in parts of Asia being banished to isolated huts when menstruating; people with disabilities not being noticed by all-male assessment teams in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Gita, and the difference that introducing female assessors made.

“Inclusion isn’t just gender for me – you are so much more than one thing. Women with disabilities have different experiences to women of colour, that’s really hard to wrestle with.”

The International Women’s Day 2024 focus (‘Count Her In’) resonates with Pip, who sees investing in women in the workforce as a twin-track approach. Yes, women need to be included in leadership and decision-making, but we also need a targeted approach to get there.

“All the evidence shows that diverse boards are more profitable, they manage risks better, their reputation increases. The impact of having women involved in big decisions is incredible. We just need to continue to strive towards that.”

At RPV Pip’s work has fostered a sense of belonging through programs that not only work on diversity, but also how people are actually included. Policies and strategies are a starting point – real progress comes from creating genuine change where behaviours that make someone feel excluded or discriminated against are eliminated.

“As an industry that’s where we hope to get to. It’s not just around having people in the room, it’s that they can meaningfully and safely participate, lead and engage.”

Victoria Barsky

A childhood odyssey that belongs in a movie has given the Senior Manager, Learning and Organisational Capability tremendous perspective.

"I have a different perspective. Entitled is not in my vocabulary... On a daily basis I carry with me tremendous gratitude."

Around the time she celebrated her seventh birthday with a party in her native Kyiv, Victoria Barsky passed the entrance exams to study piano at the Ukrainian Conservatory, a music school started by Tchaikovsky.

“Then suddenly everything changed.”

Half a century later, the details of her family’s escape from an oppressive communist regime remain too raw to share. Suffice to say their months-long journey to freedom, with their most-treasured possessions stuffed into a single suitcase, has marked Victoria’s life.

“Every day I’m living the dreams that my parents had for me,” she says, still in awe of a mother who travelled around the old Soviet Union as an electrical engineer designing lighting for new roads and bridges, and a father who was a senior civil engineer in Kyiv.

Her parents were forever grateful for all that Australia did to accept them, and always celebrated what Victoria calls “the incredible privilege of freedom”. Her father used his mathematical mind to start a carpet business, winning jobs because his precise calculations meant virtually no waste. Her mother gave birth to a brother who is 14 years Victoria’s junior.

“He’s had an incredibly different upbringing – same parents, completely different world. We’re very close.”

A fascination with elite performance was seeded on Victoria’s first day at school in Melbourne, when she mistook fellow students tagging her in the playground as a threat, so ran as fast as she could with her classmates in pursuit. She didn’t realise they were including her in a game of “chasey” – but she did discover that she could run fast.

“That created a reputation, and a high profile. I was sports captain all through my schooling.”

Years later, just after Laura had started school, Victoria relayed that story to her children while they were in the car. “I heard sobs from the back seat and had to pull over. I turned around and they were crying and hugging each other.”

Laura and Ethan were teenagers before their mother felt she could flesh out her movie-worthy refugee story. When they asked if she was poor, Victoria would reply: “No, I was always loved. We had freedom, and that made us feel like the wealthiest people on the planet.”

Having studied organisational psychology at university she has spent much of her career in management consulting, including running her own Collins Street business, and set up the inclusion and diversity and learning and development streams at Suburban Rail Loop.

Now she delivers rich curriculum at RPV, always with an eye to making individuals and teams better.

When Victoria finished school her mother – a woman of immense strength who was the driver behind their escape to Australia – took her to Europe to celebrate. Having a similar overseas adventure with Laura recently was very moving.

Victoria knows her lived experience is very personal and has left her “calibrated differently”, and resilient through necessity.

“I have a different perspective. Entitled is not in my vocabulary. I know how extremely fortunate and privileged we are just to live in Australia with all of our human rights, our access to healthcare and education, the opportunities we have.

“On a daily basis I carry with me tremendous gratitude.”

Return to the Rail Projects Victoria homepage