Meet a Woman of Asphalt: All Suburbs Bitumen’s Gemma Forsythe
BY Sandy Lender
Even when she was a child, Gemma Forsythe would assist with her father’s asphalt paving company chores, going so far as to run the plate compactor at age 9. The asphalt industry is in her blood and as she moved through school, she planned to not only stay in the industry, but to be more than an assistant for the company based in Adelaide, Australia. Over the years, she’s seen the role women have in this industry grow and she’s seen the way the industry has adapted to accept and use women’s skills. We’re grateful Forsythe was willing to sit down and share her story with others.
AsphaltPro: What year did you officially join the asphalt industry?
Gemma Forsythe: As a full-time employee, I joined the asphalt industry in 2008. I was both a truck driver and labourer with the patch crew. However, I was first introduced to asphalt in 1997 when my dad purchased the company and completed my first job in the year 2000 when I was 9 years old.
AsphaltPro: What is your official title currently and what responsibilities does your job require of you?
Gemma Forsythe: My official title in our company is the office manager where I do the invoicing, quoting, accounts, human resources administration, etc. However, I’m on site three days a week where I complete all of the compaction both with vibrating plates and rollers, raking of asphalt, first aid, and all labouring. We pride ourselves on working as a team in our company and swap and rotate roles to keep it fresh, fun, and keep our skills up to date. I’m a huge believer in having everyone know how to do each other’s jobs.
AsphaltPro: What advice can you offer for bringing new technologies or practices to a crew or company as a female leader?
Gemma Forsythe: Know your stuff! I’m a strong believer in the fact that it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, if you’re introducing a new practice, or something that others aren’t familiar with yet, they won’t be on board unless they trust what you’re talking about. This means you have to do the research, network with the people who know what they’re selling to you and have those answers ready for when your team asks you directly.
AsphaltPro: Your video showed some of the challenges you’re overcome as a woman in the roadbuilding industry in Australia. Could you highlight for the North American readers which challenge you think might surprise them and how you worked to solve it?
Gemma Forsythe: Of course, there are a few challenges of being a female in an asphalt crew. Obviously one of the main obstacles for myself is the lack of toilet facilities, especially after having a baby. Often, we are working in remote areas where the closest toilet is 30 minutes to an hour away, so I’ve become an absolute pro at learning to hold it in.
Another is traffic control, which is personally the least favorite part of my job. Truckies don’t particularly like having to follow a detour when a road is blocked off, so I’ve been spat at, driven at, had cars and trucks stop a mere millimetre away from me at a stop sign, something which I don’t think would happen if I was a male, and has certainly never happened to my male colleagues.
AsphaltPro: Would you be willing to share with our readers at what point in your pregnancy you felt the need to curb any of your activities? And which activities you felt the need to limit?
Gemma Forsythe: I did worry about the asphalt steam I was inhaling and the loud sounds of the machinery; however, it was easy to wear a mask and get reassurance from medical professionals that I wasn’t harming my daughter or potentially affecting her hearing. I did limit myself in regard to the asphalt saw and removed myself where I could to keep the noise level down.
As we are in an era where we are all aware of manual handling and the effects it can have on our bodies, I was able to easily modify my actions at work to ensure I could keep the risk of potentially harming myself low. I worked on site until 37 weeks pregnant and suffered severe Hyperemesis Gravidarium for the entirety of my pregnancy, so at that point I was just so sick that I knew my body was begging for a rest.
AsphaltPro: You’ve talked about safety and the PPE available when you started versus what’s available now. Could you give an example of a time when the lack of safe PPE for women could have caused a problem, in your experience?
Gemma Forsythe: In the past, the only PPE available to me was men’s shirts, boots, gloves, and pants, etc., which could easily catch on any machinery/trucks as they used to be so large and ill-fitting. In a day and age now where we have women’s workwear readily available to use, it has made for a much safe worksite for women.
In our company, we absolutely do not allow the use of polyester micromesh shirts, as I’ve personally seen on another asphalt crew when hot rubber crack seal was spilled onto the shirt and caused burns to their team member with the polyester sticking to the skin. We only allow the use of 100% cotton shirts, which also act as SPF 50+ in the Australian summer.
AsphaltPro: Could you share your philosophy on how the acceptance of women in construction has given rise to safe conditions for women, and for both men and women?
Gemma Forsythe: Women feel safer in our community because of the acceptance of women in construction. When a person (male or female) feels accepted, it automatically helps them to feel safer, trusted and gives them a sense of belonging. I think that because women in construction pushed against all of the gender barriers that were being presented to us and showed our peers that we weren’t going anywhere, it pushed for male colleagues to be more open-minded and accepting than they were in previous years.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position in the asphalt industry?
Gemma Forsythe: Gender equality! I strongly feel that by being with and working alongside men, I’ve been able to also boost their morale. Let’s face it, everyone needs a boost sometimes, regardless of what their gender is. By being an active member of our team, I’ve been able to instill in them that women can do the job, too. Although I’m never too proud to admit that sometimes I need a little extra help.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt business?
Gemma Forsythe: I’ve always had the saying “Just because it’s a male-dominated industry doesn’t mean that it’s a male-only industry.” That’s something I try and remind anyone of, especially women who may be struggling with acceptance from male co-workers or perhaps are wanting to enter the industry and are feeling a bit daunted. Absolutely, as a woman, it might take me a little while longer to do something, purely because of my strength and size (I weigh 52 kg), but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it 100%, give it my all and get that job done.
AsphaltPro: What is your favorite piece of equipment to operate on the paving crew?
Gemma Forsythe: I love every piece of equipment that we own and have two absolute favorites. I love the roller. Being able to see an unfinished road ahead of me and looking back a second later and seeing the start of the finished product behind me gives me so much satisfaction. I’m also a huge fan of the excavator, being able to dig up existing asphalt and reinstating it is honestly the best feeling.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt business?
Gemma Forsythe: At the end of the day, the most rewarding feeling is knowing that my body is sore from pure hard work and my mind is sharp from having to really use it. I also love that I’m able to inspire other women, especially young women and girls. My daughter is two and a half and tells anyone who will listen, “my mummy uses a roller and a digger at work,” and I love that she’s so proud of that.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us about a person who served as a mentor for you and what advice you’d like to pass along from that person?
Gemma Forsythe: My dad, Ian Carter, has always been a huge mentor for me. He’s now 59 years old and still works like he’s 30. He’s a huge believer in teamwork and making work fun. He has encouraged me from day one to pursue whatever I wanted, but since joining his crew, when I was younger especially, he has guided me to work as hard as any male team member he employs and to carry myself in a way that I would one day be respected in our industry and to “be a sponge, take everything in and keep learning.” The best piece of business advice he ever gave me was to “trust my gut.” If a job doesn’t feel right, or potential client is giving off negative vibes, then pass on it.
AsphaltPro: As a leader in your company, would you like to share any differences in Australian paving practices with the North American audience?
Gemma Forsythe: Unfortunately, I feel like in Australia we are a fair bit behind when it comes to new and innovative products. In Adelaide, we are only now being introduced to seal coating, which Dad and I first discovered on YouTube. At present, there is only one other company in our state that practices it, and I know it’s been active for a while in the USA. In Australia with asphalt, we tend to do a few layers of “scrub coat” if the asphalt is more than 80 mm deep, whereas in the USA particularly, we have noticed that they will lay the asphalt 100 mm deep in one straight run, roll it and be done with it. I’d love to be able to travel the world and learn different practices of asphalt worldwide.