Women In Facilities Management Get Real About Sexism, ‘Mansplaining’ and Proving Their Worth
Although more and more women are changing the face of facilities management, it’s still a male-dominated field. Within FM, men outnumber women by about nine to one in leadership roles, according to a recent Sodexo article that cites a study from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
We’ve written before about why women are well-suited for facilities management. The position requires strong relationship-building and project management skills, which tend to be strengths for many women.
That said, women working in the field say they often feel more pressure to prove themselves and their expertise compared to their male colleagues. They’ve experienced bias that’s sometimes blatant but often more subtle. We spoke with four women who shared how they’ve overcome these challenges and the best advice they have for other female facility managers climbing the career ladder.
“Switch Gears, Adapt and Advance” - Holly Hindmarsh, Buildingi
Holly Hindmarsh dreamed of working in residential architecture, but she never expected her career path to take the direction it did. After finishing her drafting degree, she saw many of her male peers with less experience getting the jobs she was applying for.
When she got an offer from Buildingi to work with their drawing records management practice for a large client, she figured it would be just a stepping stone. But after six months, she realized she had found her niche in FM and corporate real estate.
“When I saw the need for planning and tools in the corporate world, I was intrigued,” she said. “It combined my love of technology and love of drafting into one ideal role.”
Now she manages a team that provides occupancy planning services to clients with properties all over the world.
Some of her clients have vendors in different parts of the world where it’s not the norm to see women in management roles. There are times when they’ll ask to speak with a male supervisor or try to engage in side conversations with another male colleague. It’s a frustrating reality, but having a supportive team helps. She encourages other women to embrace new opportunities in facilities management, because their perspective is so important.
“Never give up, never stop learning, and always push yourself,” she said. “Just when you think you know a lot, this industry will change. You need to be able to switch gears, adapt and advance forward without skipping a beat!”
“Make Allies” - Jodi Parrott, FBL Financial Group
Jodi still remembers the time a male architect tried to dismiss her by telling her she didn’t need to be at an important meeting. It was early in her career as an interior designer, and she was young. But she knew she was essential to the project and had a job to do. Fortunately, the client she was representing jumped to her defense. Even after a 25-year career at FBL Financial Group and working her way up to become a facilities planning specialist, Jodi said there are times when she still has to assert herself to make sure she’s at the important meetings.
“As a woman, you have to know something about all the aspects of facilities management to be taken seriously—whether it’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing or architecture,” Jodi said. “Even a discussion about flush valves in urinals helps me understand the whole project.”
“Make allies who will help you understand the issues and show you respect. Know who you’re dealing with, male or female, and get to to know them as a person. Life is all about relationships.”
“Educate Yourself and Be Direct” - Connie Drake, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting
Despite her training as an architect and her experience with CAD and data analytics, Connie, a senior associate at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, admits she’s had to prove her expertise much more than her male counterparts have. She had to get buy-in from male executives who doubted her recommendations at times, particularly in the earlier days of her career.
After 20 years of working in facilities management, she experiences that much less often. Now, she’s more likely to have those conversations with male technicians rather than executives. While she’s not an expert in all the intricacies of building management, a little research before meeting with a technician can go a long way.
“If you’re going to talk with an HVAC man, you need to know what an air handler is,” she said. “Educate yourself on all aspects of the work, even if it’s a 10-minute Googling session; to be able to speak his language really helps your authority.”
Being as direct and concise as possible also helps earn respect. Let technicians know exactly what you want them to do, as opposed to talking in more general terms about what you’re trying to accomplish.
“Don’t Be Afraid to Ask” - Elizabeth Vasek, Ford Foundation
Elizabeth Vasek, a facilities manager at the Ford Foundation in New York City, said she encountered a lot of “mansplaining” early in her career—men explaining technical terms to her in a condescending tone.
“Because of this, especially early on in my career, I was sometimes afraid to ask questions or let on that I didn't know everything about every aspect of FM,” she said. “I think I've gained a lot more confidence over the years, which has helped. For me, it comes down to knowing that I'm intelligent and a fast learner and that it's okay to not know everything. I think it's important to not be afraid to assert yourself when you have an opinion or recommendation, but also to not be afraid to ask questions—it's the best way to learn!”
Having a mentor and being part of a network will go a long way to build your knowledge, she added.
“Recognize Where You Can Add Value” - Susan Veres, Acorda
Facilities management roles don’t always come with clear job descriptions; it’s more often a progression of acquiring new responsibilities over time. You can either see that as a frustration or choose to view it as a challenge that motivates you.
Susan Veres chose the latter when she first started working as a consultant for Acorda Therapeutics. Her task was to help the company redesign its workspace—a project expected to last 12 months—but within six months, Susan had worked her way into a permanent position. She identified a number of ways the company could improve its energy efficiency and reduce costs, all while making the space more functional and inviting. A new window treatment she recommended resulted in a $75,000 rebate, and energy efficiency improvements saved about $125,000 a year.
Today, she's is a senior director who manages a nine-member facilities team as well as overseeing contractors, lease agreements, security and more at Acorda’s facilities in New York and Massachusetts.
“In many companies, this role isn’t really defined,” she said. “You need to recognize where you can add value and make the case for it. The biggest challenge I see with women starting in the industry is a lack of confidence in how transferable their skills are. We feel like we have to have all the experience before we have the opportunity. But nobody has done everything in the space you’re in—there’s always an opportunity for something more to be done. If it’s something you’re interested in, you should try it!”