Twelve women, twelve different stories. On 30 July 2007, these 12 influential women from the facilities management industry gathered in a room to take part in the Middle East's first ‘Women in FM' roundtable event, organised by facilities management Middle East.
From business development managers to FMs and consultants, the women came from all walks of life and each had their own story to tell about their path into the FM industry.
It was quite a challenge for me to prove myself as an Arab, Muslim, conservative lady in the working arena. - Iman Hassan
Traditionally, most facilities management professionals were born out of engineering and it was the male species that filled these roles.
It is true that the facilities management industry is saturated with men. But there are women all over the world breaking the barriers, changing cultural perceptions and carving a niche for themselves in the sector. And the Middle East is no exception to either of these statements.
However, a concern attracting women to the industry is that the Middle East is still playing host to a stigma revolving around a woman's role in the region's society, explains Danielle Le Faucheur, senior consultant at recruitment firm Macdonald & Company.
‘Women in FM' took place to help stamp out these stigmas and help women, both local and expatriate, embrace career, education and the facilities management industry.
During the discussion, the main topics covered were: culture, gender and acceptance; training and education and recruitment and Emiratisation.
But there were other prominent areas where strong statements were made, starting with Iman Hassan's battle against her traditional, Muslim culture to fight her way up the career ladder and achieve her current job status, principle consultant at Idama Asset Management.
"It was quite a challenge for me to prove myself as an Arab, Muslim, conservative lady in the working arena. In the last 10 years I did find that being a national lady was a barrier. I would walk into a meeting room and I'd see all these faces look at me as if to say, "what are you doing here?"," she explains.
As focus then steered towards the industry, the common challenge to try and distinguish just what facilities management actually is took place.
As Michelle Strydom rightly points out, if all 12 women were to give their own definition of facilities management there would be 12 definitions.
"My comment will always be that facilities management is just housekeeping on a really big scale. You can add in service level agreements and performance management and everything else, but ultimately, it's housekeeping," claims Clare Wait, senior facilities manager, Sama Dubai.
A comment Joanna Saward, senior recruitment consultant, agrees with but also lays claim to her own analogy. "You walk into your work and say good morning to the receptionist and hello to the security guard. You then swipe your card, go through the entry barrier and press the button for the lift. You arrive at your floor, hang your coat up, turn on your computer, you might go to the restaurant round the corner and get a coffee and some toast and sit down and start your day.
"Now if any of that doesn't work, straight away you're up in arms and complaining. However, if you're able to sit at your desk and get on with your day, you haven't given it a second thought as to how you got there."
The next big question to ask was whether or not women made better FMs than their male counterparts.
A mixed response came from the ladies, with reasoning being based on the type of role in question. Interestingly, prior to the event, numerous men were asked the same question and gave the same response.
Legislation to regulate discrimination was touched upon. But as Saward points out, it might be a little early.
"It needs to be allowed to evolve in a positive way without interference from external influences that could start to dampen down the pace of growth in the region.
"It's an exciting marketplace at the moment and it's full of opportunity but it will get to a point where there needs to be more guidelines or a code of conduct."
What soon became apparent during the 90-minute discussion, was that each woman was passionate about what they do. Regardless of whether they had chosen FM as a career or fallen into it by accident.
The event showcased the challenges, developments and achievements women in FM face and have faced.
‘Women in FM' was organised by facilities management Middle East. Thanks go to Compass CAMEA for hosting the event and preparing a fantastic buffet and to 3DB for providing the recording equipment.
Culture, Gender & Acceptance
Michelle:Personally, I find the biggest challenges are through communication and language barriers.
It is almost a daily challenge one has to work through being in the UAE market.
I haven't had many problems from the gender perspective. I think the UAE is very westernised and a lot of people that we deal with at the different levels are very educated.
Clare:I work for a government organisation and I'm one of the most senior women in the company. There's only one woman more senior than me and that's still nowhere near a director - we have no female directors out of 11.
We understand a degree from Oxford or Cambridge carries leverage, but we need to learn at what level Middle Eastern university degree sit. - Joanna Saward
Gender is an area where the UAE is lacking. It is very hot on culture and we have rules around the percentage of any one nationality we can have, but it doesn't seem to put the same emphasis on gender.
Sasha:I don't think it's just a Middle East problem as I've experienced it in the UK and Ireland. You walk into a meeting and they sometimes assume that you are there to take the minutes.
Danielle:At one of my client meetings I explained, like my director would, what Macdonald & Company do as a business and the service it provides. Two days later, the client called and wanted to see my director with me. All he wanted was for the information I gave him to be justified by a man.
Sasha:The same thing happened at the FM Expo. People would come up and wait for my male colleagues to be free and they would bypass me. But it has improved from last year and it now seems to be changing, evolving and getting better.
Celine:Facilities management is a male dominated area. It comes from a mechanical, electrical and engineering background so people are not used to seeing women in a management or commercial position.
Samira:But facilities management is not a sector where you can find a lot of people over here, it's a limited sector and that could be why most of the senior level roles are filled with males.
Iman:In the past we had a problem with gender. But over the past five years the market has developed and the shortened resources has helped women in securing senior positions. Now, it's more about competency rather than being male or female.
When I was recruited, I was up against a male and I was picked - that says something.
Dubai Properties has a programme of succession planning called HPL - high potential leader programme - it is developing the future leaders of the organisation. Currently, there are 12 HPLs, four of whom are women.
In my junior years it was difficult trying to position myself. I've always been a career-minded lady and I was very ambitious. I want to go up the corporate ladder and acquire the skills I need to enable me to do that.
I worked in the UK for two years and I found this the most challenging two years of my life. It was very difficult for me to be accepted.
You need to challenge yourself, go out there and see what you really like. Traditionally, when women go to make a career choice, it's what's agreed with their family. But women should challenge themselves. You don't win your battles by sitting still and feeling sorry for yourself. It's when you go out there and make it happen.
Indira:She's talking about the mental horizons being broadened, it's not just education. Education doesn't totally empower you, you have to carve a niche for yourself.
People would wait for my males colleagues to be free instead of speaking to me, but that seems to be changing. - Sasha Doran
Clare:It goes back to what Celine was saying about people coming from a hard service background, engineers and technical engineers.
The majority of the women tend to come from the soft services background. One of the other routes was the office manager. Start off as a PA or administrator, then someone says, "could you manage the office, could you keep an eye on the cleaning". Slowly but surely, as the business gets bigger you end up managing the whole building.
It's where people are coming from to get into facilities management that influences which gender.
Jane:I feel I got my job because the men didn't want to deal with customer service as it's too fluffy for them.
Ingrid:However, I chose to do a facility management degree in 1992 in the Netherlands. When I moved here to the Middle East, one of the main challenges I faced was being a mother of two and trying to find a part-time job.
Luckily, MAF Dalkia gave me the opportunity to work four days a week and I think that with today's technology, the mobile phones and laptops, it's not really necessary to be on site.
Joanna:We have a lot of Filipino ladies that are very well qualified engineers, hard services, construction and structural civil engineers. But when given to the client for consideration, it's a straight no.
This might be dependant on the role, for example, site based contractors may not want a woman on site helping them to deliver.
But in the UK, you can't demand a certain age or sex because of equal opportunities and discriminations laws. Whereas here, there seems to be a pecking order in terms of culture and candidates. Perhaps in the future it will be a little bit more regulated.
Danielle:Because there's a lot of European influence in the market, clients in the Middle East are now coming round to the idea of having females in the workplace and it needs to be accepted.
Iman:When I was working with EC Harris, we had a gentleman from Lebanon who had been in the construction industry for three years. He flew in expecting to see a male and I sat with him and told him the agenda for the day. He asked to see the director and my boss handled it really well as he was very comfortable with my capability.
I did all the talking and the following day, the gentleman told my boss that he wasn't needed anymore and that I was enough.
People tend to have this first reaction but then when you know how to sell yourself and position yourself, show confidence and not arrogance, people tend to give you the opportunity to prove yourself.
The first step is always the difficult one.
Training & Education
Q: At the moment there's Heriot Watt University that do a masters in FM. There's also a college in Oman that is starting an FM degree in September. Will the increase in FM courses change, impact or influence the sector here?
Joanna:There are a lot of well-educated individuals from different nationalities in the immediate arena of Dubai and the UAE. They have degrees, two degrees, PhDs and MSCs. We need to learn to assess at what level these degrees sit.
For example, if someone talks about Oxford or Cambridge in the UK you know they are top-end universities. But we don't know about the rest of the world. Are the degrees just a piece of paper? Or are they very well recognised universities?
Michelle:I think improved skills can only enhance the overall output of the FM service market. I would be interested to know how many people are actually subscribing to do those courses and what the success rate is. Once those people qualify, will they automatically go into the UAE facilities management market?
Communication and language are the main barriers. - Michelle Strydom
Joanna:In the UK, we started to see an awful lot of people doing an FM degree straight from school and recognising that FM is a career.
Also, the BIFM (British Institute of Facilities Management) offer its own qualifications. People who are already working within FM are becoming qualified - here's the skill base and here's the qualification to show it.
The slight downside is that you've got graduates coming out with a degree in facilities management but they haven't got the experience.
Clare:Sama Dubai have linked up with a Swedish university and Reading University to set up the Dubai Real Estate Institute. It will have facilities management qualifications, diplomas and refresher courses.
The institute will open in Dubai Health Care City in September.
Iman:I think the key players in Dubai, like Sama Dubai, Dubai Properties and Nakheel, are very much interested in education. There is a need in the market place to provide education to build up the FM teams, because we have a shortage of staff right now. Our only resource is getting people from the international arena and that will not be able to sustain our operations.
With the way the industry is moving, I think you will have lots of collaboration and partnership between the key players in the market and the universities in the UAE to develop the knowledge and education required to educate fresh graduates.
Jane:Before I got this job with Emrill I didn't know what FM was. I started with the call centre and my role then expanded into visiting upset customers in villas, so I soon learnt
Ruth:Back in Australia, I worked along side a facilities management team. But when I got to Dubai I really didn't know what I was getting involved in. Since being here I've been involved in lots of different areas and it's good.
I've not had any external training yet, it's all been in-house. But I feel both ways are a good way to learn.
Joanna:FM is predominantly a combination of in-house and external training. Historically, a lot of people have fallen into it whereas now, people are acquiring some theoretical knowledge to apply to the roles.
Recruitment & Emiratisation
Q: If we specifically look at local females, are they attracted to getting in the FM market from a graduation perspective?
Iman:Most of them are very much interested in the customer service and business management. We see a lot of young male individuals interested in the technical side of things, we hardly have any women in the technical side of FM. They are mostly on the soft services side.
Michelle:Do we think that ladies in general stick to the customer and soft service side of the market?
Iman:It's only people who are visionary who want to go that extra mile, ladies who want to be different, that go outside the box and try to explore what options they have.
The size of the FM sector here could have an impact on the gender split. - Samira Malik
I think the key players will be the driving force in Emiratisation. Dubai Holding has a lot of initiatives as part of its guiding principles to promote Emiratisation into the private sector and trying to recruit fresh graduates.
There's consultancy, management, operational, technical and strategic levels. Anybody can find themselves somewhere in FM, whether it's at the design or operational stage, it's a broad profession that can capture the interests of so many professionals.
Joanna:From a recruitment level, the preference is always if you have an Emirati.
Clare:We have a minimum required of 30% and we're more than exceeding that in our department. We have 11 open roles at the moment and all of them must be filled by Emirati's. But we just can't find people who are interested or have the skills. We're having a really tough time. The Sama Dubai HR team won't accept anyone without a degree.
Becca:Will the weak dirham cause problems and restrict current employment pools?
Clare:Our salary scales have gone up in line with that.
Danielle:We've noticed a difference as well. We publish a salary survey in the Middle East and we've noticed a variation of salaries and wondered if it was because of the exchange rate.
A lot of candidates have said that in comparison to where they are living at the moment, the salary does not equate to what they are currently earning.
Clare:With that rate change and the price of property, mainly to rent, the salaries have to be higher. There's no advantage in the tax-free anymore because it is taken by the cost of the property. There has to be an increase in salary for it to be worthwhile.
Indira:Also, we see a lot of consultants taking skilled people back to India as the salaries are increasing and the rupee is very strong. People are moving into better positions.For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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