It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in C-Suites, but that’s not the only business environment where their presence is scarce. Women in facility management remain few, compared to their male counterparts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprised only 25 percent of all facilities management positions in 2022—with only 15 percent in senior-level FM positions.
Why? Turns out, several factors are involved.
Uncertainty About What Facility Management Is
Let’s start with IFMA’s findings. Related to their recent report, The State of Women in Facilities Management, a survey concluded that the average person doesn’t really know what facilities management entails. And women who are not in the industry are even further from seeing a career path within it.
“When [people] think of FM (Facilities Management), they think of a whole host of things, but don’t really think about the career journey that you can experience in facilities management,” said report respondent and chair of IFMA’s board, Irene Thomas.
IFMA board member and Head of Facilities at Chubb, Lorena Espada, agreed.
“I think there’s a general idea that you need a technical background, which could look more masculine rather than feminine,” she said. “And they don’t know about the management and the other possibilities of the career within facility management.”
IFMA board member Christa Dodoo pointed out that “most people understand FM as a very traditional boiler-room profession” and that “more people need to be aware that FM can now include workplace management strategy, customer service, data analytics, tech, financial aspects, and a focus on the circular economy.”
Gender Disparity in Traditional Caregiving Roles
Women remain disproportionately in caregiver roles, not only for children but for elderly parents. By and large, facilities management positions haven’t accommodated the flexible schedules that caregiving mandates.
Facilities Management Company TalbotForce cites this roadblock, noting that: “Several factors like lack of flexibility [and] rigid protocols that don’t accommodate caregiving responsibilities . . . are responsible for this alarming inequality.”
Louisa Keleher, Women in Facilities Management (WiFM) representative, concurs, asserting that a “lack of flexibility in some workplaces” contributes to underrepresentation.
Brenda Sanchez, Program Integrator at PRIDE Industries, contended with such inflexibility when she was starting her facilities career.
“Before I was working for a nonprofit, when I was doing janitorial project management, the hours were such that I had to bring my daughter with me to work,” said Sanchez. “Thankfully, these were places where that was okay, but many environments won’t accommodate that.”
“Men’s Work” Perception
According to a 2019 report in The Economist, U.S. women still tended choose “pink jobs” while U.S. men tended toward “blue jobs”—a trend that continues to prevail in the facilities management industry.
Perceptions about what constitute “blue” jobs (vs “pink” ones) may be based in a job’s historical context. For example, facility management’s roots are in custodial and maintenance—work that once required substantial physical strength. Though the role has vastly expanded, perceptions outside the industry haven’t yet caught up.
Until relatively recently, marketing materials to promote FM may also have contributed to the “blue” perception.
“When I was first looking to get my certification,” said Annamaria Sanfilippo, Program Manager at PRIDE Industries, “I didn’t see any females represented in the imagery specific to the courses.”
Lack of Mentorship—A Domino Effect
Markedly fewer women in facilities management positions means markedly fewer female mentors. Without mentors, young women entering—or considering entering—the field have fewer resources to navigate initial barriers. Once in facilities management positions, the same dynamic holds true. If women don’t see other women breaking the glass ceiling—and learn how they did it—they are more likely to feel discouraged from trying to break it themselves.
“Early in my career, I had one female mentor,” said Sanfilippo. “I recall walking into her office and seeing certifications displayed on the wall, and I made it a goal to be like her. If I hadn’t seen her ‘breaking the glass ceiling,’ I wouldn’t have had the drive to break it myself. A strong female mentor from an early stage in my career prepared me to succeed.”
Lack of Retention
The IFMA report on the state of women in facilities management found that “Women facility managers constitute almost one in every three entry-level FM jobs. However, women hold less than one in five senior-level FM jobs, suggesting that women are not staying in the FM workforce.”
The report doesn’t provide reasons for attrition, but other sources reiterate the factors listed above.
Widening the Talent Pipeline
Women’s underrepresentation in FM doesn’t affect only women. The industry itself is also missing out. Fortunately, there are many organizations that are working to change that.
Way back in 2017, global work tech company Eptura asserted that women may be uniquely qualified to be facilities managers, based on four traits they tend to excel in:
- Social Skills
In a 2021 article, The Glass Hammer, a community for women executives, elaborated on this assertion, boiling it down to a woman’s tendency to possess higher emotional intelligence (EQ). It’s not enough, however, for women already in executive FM positions to know this. Word needs to get out. Thankfully, via organizations like Women in Facilities Management (WiFM), it is.
WiFM, for example, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering the advancement of women in commercial facilities management careers. With sponsors like IFMA and Apex, they do this by creating networking and educational events along with mentorship and scholarship opportunities. Maintaining a robust YouTube presence, they extend their reach nationally.
The Higher Education Facilities Forum (HEFF) is also elevating the voices of women in facilities management. In 2022, HEFF hosted a panel of female facilities management leaders. The “seasoned” participants explored what universities can do to support the next generation of female FM professionals. Their conclusions circle back to educating the public about what, exactly, facilities management is.
“Once you start unpacking what we actually do, that opens up a lot of doors for a lot of people with diverse expertise,” said Bonita Dukes, Clark Atlanta University VP of Facilities Management.
Thanks to the tenacity of female pioneers in FM, the industry is becoming more promising for women entering it.
In fact, despite their underrepresentation, female facilities managers in entry-level and early mid-level jobs earn about the same as their male counterparts. And, according to the IFMA report, women in senior-level FM jobs earn “significantly higher pay” than men in similar positions.
“At all levels, we tend to work hard and work smart,” said Sanchez. “We’ve made tremendous strides, and I’m excited to see where we’ll be in five or ten years.”
Deniz Besiktepe, credentialed Facilities Manager and Assistant Professor at Purdue, intends to spend those years informing a new generation of FM professionals.
“One of my goals is to increase awareness of facility management in construction management, in civil engineering, and in all related fields,” Besiktepe says. She goes on to explain why she shifted from architecture to facilities management: “The design process may take a couple of years, the construction process a couple more, but the facility management involves 25, 30, even 40 or 50 years of the building’s life cycle.”
What Can Employers Do?
When it comes to attraction and retention of female FM professionals, employers must begin by eliminating the roadblocks mentioned above. If your organization wants to tap into this “uniquely qualified” talent pool, here are four tips to get started:
- Get the word out about what facilities management, in your particular company, is and isn’t. Let it be known that the industry has broadened to include an array of opportunities beyond the boiler room.
- Allow more flexible schedules to accommodate caregiving duties. In environments that require 24/7 staffing, Sanchez recommends logging each employee’s availability, allowing for contingency staffing around the clock. Those who provide care in the morning can cover evenings and vice versa.
- Create a culture that banishes stereotypes when it comes to work and gender. This begins with recognizing and understanding biases—cultural, institutional, internalized, and unconscious. Include women in facilities management in your DEI efforts.
- Provide mentoring programs. Across demographics, studies conclude that mentorship affords numerous benefits—not only to those mentored, but also to the organizations they work for. Specifically, a Cornell study found that mentoring programs dramatically improved retention and promotion rates for “minorities and women”—15 percent to 38 percent.
What Can Women Do?
Of course, women who want to pursue FM need not wait around for the gates to open wider. Sometimes a push is necessary.
This means that, aside from acquiring the right training and experience, women in traditionally male spaces will need to cultivate a certain mindset.
With 17 years of experience between them, Sanfilippo and Sanchez sum it up this way:
“Women entering the FM space must self-advocate,” said Sanchez.
Sanfilippo agreed, adding, “And they have to be tenacious.”