-By Bekah Pauley, Senior Consultant, Estates & Facilities Management-
I joined The Oyster Partnership in July 2020 and I’m ashamed to say, that I did not know what Estates & Facilities was. As a sector I think it goes very unnoticed, as one of my contacts said, Estates is a ‘silent business’, it is only noticed when things go wrong. This, however, shouldn’t be the case.
Some quick questions for you…
Who makes sure that the lights work in your building, that the toilets flush, or that you have heating in this cold weather? Estates do.
But that is only half the story. Who makes sure that contractors are called, makes sure projects are completed, or is on the phone 24/7 in case of a flood? This is also Estates.
As I have mentioned, Estates as a sector is under-recognized, but further, than that, as I have found in the last 18 months, women are under-represented across the industry.
In our system (as a recruitment agency you can imagine it’s fairly extensive) I found that less than 10% of my contacts are women. I have spoken to 6 of these women in the Estates world about their journey. I have also discussed looking to the future and how they think that we could encourage more women to get into the sector.
How did you hear about estates/ How did you get into the industry?
No matter who you talk to, the answer to the question, ‘How did you get into Estates?’ is often answered – ‘Oh, I just fell into it’.
Like many jobs, Estates is not one that you hear about at your school Careers Day, but maybe it one day will be.
So, in answer to my question, the women I spoke to had a very similar response, they ‘fell into’ their role and have then worked their way up the ranks.
Jo came into Estates by Accident, through the admin route, she is now a member of the Estates Executive Team in a University. Another contact now sits in the Senior Leadership Team within a School, looking after both Estates & Operations, she started out in project management & data roles. Following this pattern, Amy similarly worked around Estates within a business park and followed another career path until finding a Facilities role within a University.
Lisa also found her way to Estates as a part-time Facilities admin role while in education. From there she’s been on both the commercial & client side of the fence, rising to become Head of her department.
Starting a career differently, both Susan and Suzanne came to Estates through the Catering Industry. Although catering often has links with the Estates Industry, it’s not always direct. Suzanne found Estates through her time working with large events organisations, where they combined catering with cleaning & waste, and the rest was history. She is now a ‘Head of department’ within a prestigious Independent School.
Talking to these women, it became clear that there isn’t a direct path into Estates, many different industries and sectors can lend the skill set to the work.
How hands-on is the Estates & Facilities role?
In a similar vein to a misunderstanding of the role of Estates, a lot of my initial conversations nearly 2 years ago, focused on the hands-on nature of the role. Although I’m personally not going into Estates, I have to say the thought of fixing toilets put me off it a bit.
Talking to women in Estates, however, I was taken aback to know that more often than not, being hands-on wasn’t a part of their role.
Jo: Not ever been hands-on, was much more focussed on the administrative and now the strategic side of Estates.
Contact 2: Not ever been hands-on, much more about the project management / strategic side of Estates.
Suzanne: Mix of strategic & hands-on – if she needs to be hands-on then she can.
Amy: Does a lot more on the strategic side, rarely hands-on.
Susan: Will get hands-on if she needs to, but again much more strategic.
Lisa: Mix – Hands-on earlier in her career, much more strategic now.
This misconception could be very misleading when people start to look at their career choices. Following on from this question, I was interested in what skills the women thought were most important to their current roles.
All 6 women had very similar answers and the top points I got were:
Being organised & able to plan ahead
Being practical & level-headed
Being solution focussed
Being able to work well with people – stakeholder management
Being able to say things as they are/stand your ground
These surprised me, as they all focused much more on ‘soft skills’ rather than specific technical knowledge. Lisa pointed this out as well and believes that technical skills can be learned, whereas the softer skills are harder to teach. Suzanne echoed this sentiment.
From this, I was interested to know whether they came into the role qualified, or gained qualifications on route, or simply just learnt on the job. The answer to this was mixed.
Most of the women I spoke to have unrelated degrees gained before they entered the industry, these included Business or History. None came into Estates from a technical background.
Several of the women including Jo and Lisa have gained qualifications along the route, including BIFM (now IWFM). Both felt that these qualifications gave them a backing to their knowledge already gained through the industry.
Suzanne mentioned that she thought that some form of formalised education is useful when coming into Estates, simply because of the organisational side of the role. Suzanne, along with others, have done online qualifications to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. Susan has done these and found that it just keeps her up to date with what’s happening in the estate’s world.
I briefly mentioned about technical skills, and that was another factor that surprised me when talking to these women. Not one of them feels like they need the technical side to be where they are today. Estates is not just about the maintenance aspect of the job.
Is the Estates & Facilities sector Male Dominated?
Having spoken to women who are all quite high up in the Estates Industry, I was interested to find out about the people they were managing, my questions focused on how their Teams were structured.
The Teams seem to follow a split: operations & cleaning seem to be more female-dominated. Site teams are predominantly male. This isn’t to say women don’t make an appearance in site teams, they do, but from the women I’ve spoken to, it seems that often they do not have any formal qualifications, rather they learn on the job (of course this is not true across the board).
Although internal Teams can be a bit more diverse, all the women have mentioned that contractor teams and those in industries related to property, for example, architects or building surveyors, are often more male orientated. Most also put this down to a lack of trades qualifications for women, and it, unfortunately, could be a leftover from stereotypical ideals, but hopefully, this is starting to change.
Through this line of questioning, I wanted to know how (if, indeed, they did) feel that they’ve been treated differently in the industry by colleagues.
Susan felt that in Estates she’s been lucky as she doesn’t feel that she’s treated any differently, unfortunately in her catering history, that hasn’t always been the case – salaries were lower and women ‘had their place’ in certain kitchens. Amy similarly doesn’t feel like she is treated any differently by her colleagues, she has found that her team is very welcoming, and has gone from 2 women, up to just under half the team being women.
One of my contacts mentioned that she thought that the industry could be perceived as intimidating, due to the male-dominated nature of it, but personally has never felt this has impacted her, perhaps in the past, similarly to Susan, salaries were different to male colleagues doing the same role. Jo feels that maybe she has strategically chosen roles for herself, but through the course of this has found that she doesn’t get treated differently to colleagues, but maybe does have to ‘stand her ground’ a bit more.
The point of ‘standing your ground’ also came up with Lisa, who acknowledged something similar. She definitely has seen people treating her differently in the industry, things as simple as people referring to her male deputy as the decision-maker rather than her, or trying to ‘pull one over a little bit more than they might with a male colleague.
But none of the women feel like they’ve been held back by their gender, which is always a fantastic thing to hear!
What Keeps you in the world of Estates?
Having focused on the negative for a minute there, I was interested to see what kept them in Estates.
Again, I ended up getting really quite similar answers:
- Every day is different (never dull)
- Problem Solving
- The People
Tangible: I heard a variation on a theme of this, Facilities is results-driven, you can see when a project is pulled together, or know that a cleaning contract is in place and a newly refurbished classroom is being used. This means you can see what your work has produced and as Lisa mentioned, although work on a building is never ‘done’, you get a sense of satisfaction from the results.
On a similar vein, all the women mentioned that the job is never dull, which ties directly into the problem-solving aspect of it. You can go from a big capital project to choosing the paint in an office. No matter the estate’s size (and I was talking to people in charities to universities, with very differing portfolios), all the women enjoyed the challenge.
One that you may not think of in Estates is the people side of the role, you have to be able to communicate with all stakeholders, liaise with contractors etc… again, all the women mentioned this being an important part of their role and that the people side of the job made it interesting.
Most of the women mentioned flexibility. Once you’re in the organisation, as it’s a result driven job, as long as the job is getting done, you can come in a bit late, or leave a bit early. With childcare etc, this has been extremely useful.
How would you encourage others to get into Estates & Facilities?
When looking at how to encourage other women into the sector, the main point that came up was elevating the profile of estates to the wider world, and that it needs to be seen as an industry that has a varied career path, with loads of room for progression.
This can be put into practice through having links with schools or colleges, going to their job fairs or talks, and get the word out about estates (this currently doesn’t happen in many places, according to the women I spoke to).
It was also mentioned that the perception of the industry needs to change, again this can probably be rectified by advertising it as a career early on.
Some of the women I spoke to have already started down the path of elevating estates as a career path, their companies have noticed the gender discrepancy and are getting involved in the creation of initiatives to tackle this.
Jo for example has set up a workshop of the women in estates at her university, getting ideas together on how to encourage women to apply for roles. This has taken off rather, and they are getting the senior leadership involved as well.
Her workshop looked at ideas such as adverts, having to change up the language to make them more inclusive, making both the language and also the phraseology more gender-neutral. They have also come up with potential ideas of elevating the estates industry in school, maybe being part of the job fairs and just advertising it as a sector.
Another contact is promoting the profile of estates in her schools, she is using social media to shout about the accomplishments of the estates team and also getting the senior leadership involved, asking them to mention estates achievements in assemblies and bring attention to the sector.
Lisa is doing similar things within her workplace. She has taken part in ‘Dragon’s Den’ initiatives in local schools, showing off estates to those in Education. They are also very prevalent in the apprentice scheme, offering people the chance to learn the skills on the job, they have been going for 5 years now and are getting into the double figures with people taking part.
All this is definitely starting to help the cause of ‘the silent industry’.
Hopefully, it is helping to encourage women starting out in their careers to see it as a viable career path to get into, especially if they are seeing female role models in front of them from an earlier age.
From, ‘oh I fell into Estates’, to being senior members within the industry, all the women I spoke to had interesting and varied paths into the sector, but all would never leave it.
I found it extremely interesting that all the women I had spoken to also believed that encouraging women into the sector was becoming a top priority, both for themselves and for their organisations and I’m sure that this extends further than just the women I spoke to.
So, in the coming years, I hope to see more than 10% of recruitment databases (in any industry, but more specifically speaking Estates & Facilities) being women and with new initiatives, such as the ones discussed above, this will hopefully become a reality.
I want to finish by thanking all those who took time out of their very busy work schedules to chat with me. I found it extremely insightful, and I hope others will too.
After studying at Exeter University Rebekah took a year out to work as an English teacher in Hong Kong. Rebekah joined Oyster by coincidence and good timing, she interviewed shortly after coming back to the UK. Straight after the interview, she knew that the culture at Oyster would be the right fit and she was very excited to join the Estates team.