Firstly; I want to recognise and pay tribute to all the women of the World. On 9 August every year, we celebrate Women’s Day as a National Holiday in South Africa; we use the day to pay homage to the women of our Nation, our Sisters, Mothers, Daughters and Wives.
Women’s Day commemorates the 9th of August 1956 when South African women of all races came together and marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest again the pass laws in a South Africa segregated by Apartheid. Thankfully the role of women in society has progressed since then. We should not be complacent while the role of women in our society and industry has improved it has a long way to go.
I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on the positive role women bring to Workplace & Facilities Management. WM/FM needs to be aware of not only the need but the benefits of creating a greater level of gender diversity in our industry. For years this has been viewed as little more than the right thing to do but it is now known to be a critical component of success.
A growing body of research points to the fact that diversity drives innovation improves performance and helps organisations win the war on talent. I hear the voices of feminists and chauvinists alike groaning for different reasons, but we need to do better and the responsibility for the next wave of progress not only rests with those women working in FM today but with men as well. Without any hint of patriarchy or patronage, we owe it to ourselves and our chosen profession, because diversity actually makes bottom-line business sense.
Women have advanced in all areas of society since 1956, but how do we fair in FM? In a local context, South Africa is quite rightly, engaged in addressing the inequalities of the past. Upliftment is being achieved by focusing on empowering the previously disadvantaged. This is not only a moral obligation but an economic one.
In its implementation, we in South Africa are possibly more aware than most in the world of diversity and its benefits. The government even incentivises us for doing so. However, this has undoubtedly thrown into the shadows the need for greater inclusivity of women in the workplace and any more formal moves to empower our women.
As a microcosm of society, the Facilities Management industry is sadly still primarily a man’s world. When I look in the mirror every morning, I see the average representation of the FM industry, a pale male nearer the end of career than the beginning. Sadly, it is a fact that more men than women occupy facility management positions and although the numbers of women in facilities management have been steadily increasing over the years, we still have a long way to go.
In Australia, women represent about 17% of the total FM workforce. I do not have statistics for the local scenario, but this accords with my observations here in South Africa. Pitifully this situation is exacerbated as you move away from the shop floor and up the corporate ladder, with women being severely underrepresented at management level.
According to a 2021 PWC report , we fair better in South Africa than the rest of the world (It’s not often we can say that!). But we still only have a paltry 5 % of women as CEO’s in the private sector, the rest of the world only has 4%.
The report goes on to make the pertinent point that there is a business case to have women in leadership. With a direct link between companies which perform better financially and that have gender diversity.
What are the factors that contribute to a lack of representation by women in facilities management?
Facilities management is, by its nature is a 24/7 operation, and many female facilities managers with families or children feel the tension between work and domestic responsibilities. The lack of flexibility in the workplace, regarding attendance and hours, can leave women having to juggle traditional homemaking and caregiving responsibilities. This can lead to them leaving the workplace altogether or at the least being unfairly or unwittingly prejudiced when it comes to meaningful career progression.
In South Africa, the lack of female presence in FM does not seem to be alleviated by the assistance most middle-income households have in their ability to afford a full-time domestic helper. This undoubtedly alleviates some of the burdens of balancing work and home responsibilities and is a significant advantage over that of our northern European and American counterparts.
While the focus of FM is changing, from maintaining ‘the box’ to the more relational disciplines of looking after the people inside ‘the box’, it is true to say that FM is still dominated by the technical and engineering disciplines needed to maintain the infrastructure.
To counteract the huge shortage of technical skills in South Africa (as in the rest of the world) there is an encouragement for females to follow Science, Technical, Engineering or Maths (STEM) education but this is a relatively new dynamic, and it needs time and a vast improvement in our educational system for this to play out.
With the historic dominance of engineering in the FM field and the consequent prevalence of older males in the workplace, it is much harder for women to find female mentors. This undoubtedly hinders the attraction of females to an FM career and ultimately their success in it.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that women are only likely to accept a female mentor but because women are more likely to want to be mentored by another woman, they often fail to access this important resource which in turn creates a self-perpetuating culture of male dominance. To break this cycle, supportive leadership needs to encourage men and women to work collaboratively in driving a greater degree of inclusivity.
Using the nature versus nurture argument, women are naturally more collaborative than most men. Women are more adept at team management as it is not about barking orders but about creative solutions, communication of the objectives and collaborating to come together as a team to achieve the results. This is something that may not come naturally to a lot of men who are perhaps more competitive by nature.
Women often come to FM via a much more circuitous career path. I know five women who now hold very senior FM leadership positions but who started their careers as secretaries, call centre agents or in administration roles. It is in these roles that they were often asked to look after the office as an adjunct to their day to day responsibilities. To be successful they had to take on these additional duties and to juggle responsibilities outside of their job description, and in doing so they acquired inside knowledge of the facilities on the way.
If you have first-hand knowledge of the effort and skill required to deal with the complaints, find the right suppliers, get them to attend to the fault on time, do a good job and process the invoice to get them paid, then you have more experience than any FM who arrive fresh from their graduation ceremony.
There’s greater emphasis on more formal FM qualifications now than there has ever been. Nonetheless, the industry gate is still open to those with less formal qualifications, greater maturity and experience. This perhaps assists the later arrivals to a career in FM which are typically women who want to start their careers following more admin related work, caregiving or family commitments.
Another by-product of women taking longer and a more qualitative view of their careers, is their ability to foster greater loyalty both to and from their organisations. Women see beyond the technical and understand the importance of building quality relationships. These relationships are the basis of trust, and it is the ability to engender trust and control in a service operation that are the prime pillars of confidence that a client has to have in their service provider.
Women’s greater eye for detail and capacity for relationship building, empathy, judgement and maturity are critical to the service excellence required in performing at the highest level in the FM industry.
The FM industry is not without its challenges, the lack of consensus within the industry on what facilities management is provides levels of complexity and a need for flexibility in dealing with multiple stakeholders. The innate resistance by men to ask for assistance, direction or to admit to a lack of knowledge provides women with their greatest opportunity in FM and the ability to make it to whatever they want it to be.
Women need to be more forthcoming in the workplace and assertively seek highly visible opportunities to assume leadership responsibility. Among the most important and effective actions to take to be successful as a female facilities manager is to explode the myths that have discouraged women from reaching the top.
The idea that women are not suitable for management positions has worked to keep them from progressing in the workplace. It’s important to constantly challenge these stereotypes and recognise how these attitudes are stopping women from progressing. Men in leadership positions are equally important to enabling change. As the majority in FM organisations, men need to be supportive and inclusive. Without inclusion, there is no value gained from diversity.
Women in senior roles, especially, need to ensure they are doing their part to advocate for themselves and one another. In positions of leadership, women should be demanding equality for themselves when negotiating their roles, and others. More women need to support each other on the way up the corporate ladder; women need to sponsor other women and actively promote diversity and inclusion at the highest levels of a company. Support groups can be helpful to find a mentoring program that supports women in FM positions.
It is important to create alliances with women’s networks established in associations and at client and supplier organisations. This gives women more opportunities for professional development and mentoring than is typically possible with a single company. There are many specialist female chapters of recognised FM organisations, in particular, The IWFM Women in FM SIG. If you can’t find one, you may even consider putting one together yourself that’s focused specifically on developing strategies to help women breakthrough in this industry.
As more women enter the field, the chances are strong that they could be mentored or recruited by the soon-to-retire male facility managers, which is one of the best ways to promote parity and the level the playing field for both men and women in FM.
The more women in Facilities Management, the better the chance of increasing the number of women in these management positions. And the more women in leadership positions, the better conditions for all women in the workforce. Raising the issue of gender balance can place more attention on the under-representation of women in facilities management in business. While I realise this may be confrontational, women need to learn how to handle such issues in a male-dominated workplace, as well as how to say “no” to irrational demands.
This may come as a threat to the men in the organisation, but the biggest threat is to the sustainability of our industry, and that is our inability to secure appropriate talent. A more diverse culture helps win the war on talent, an organisation that’s as attractive to women as it is to men has access to the entire talent pool and a competitive advantage in attracting the best talent available.
Do some research on companies that embrace female employees in senior positions. These companies understand the profit potential of putting talented and competent female employees in FM positions. They take efforts to recruit women and move them into leadership positions when ready. Just as important, companies such as these recognise the importance of flexibility in the workplace, as well as consistent mentoring programs that offer women support. Work life balance is a parental issue, which can only be conquered together.
Education, either through experience or otherwise, is important to all women. Reading and networking are key to staying on top of the facilities industry. Take 20 minutes a day and read the trade journals, blogs and catch up on what’s happening. There are some fabulous resources available on line, and there can be no excuse for not investing time and some money in your career. Invest in programs that foster career development.
This applies to networking as well. This is a domain possibly more natural to men in the industry. Men leverage professional networks constantly. Women, on the other hand, often lack the confidence to take advantage of the opportunities provided by networks and sometimes even access to what can sometimes seem to be ‘old boys drinking club’!
Women need to attend industry events, to know what is going, the more information you have and the more expertise you get. Also, you need to engage in more formal continuing education by attending short courses, conferences and seminars. To be a good FM you need to be a ‘Jill (or Jack) of all trades, you need to know a little bit about everything. For those women that are thinking about entering facilities management look for the degree courses that are common from our tertiary institutions or develop a unique specialisation/expertise to add value to your company.
Finally, some advice to the FM organisations as a whole. We need to be much more inclusive and flexible in our approach to our staff and women, in particular, we need to review our working practices to support women in their progression in the chosen FM career.
Ladies, have a revitalising Women's Day and come back with greater determination to improve the role of Women in FM.