“A village in which we can all thrive” – The Facilities Forum crafts a supportive community for women to prosper

by Helena Morgan
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Frustrated by the lack of nurturing and engaging networking events for women in facilities and operations management, Ecofy founder Nora Potter, Cleancorp chief executive officer Lisa Macqueen and Cleancorp general manager Sally Hunt founded The Facilities Forum. 

Inspired by the possibilities that come from people-centric and female-led leadership at their respective companies, the trio invites women to rejoice in an empowering movement towards a more inclusive and diverse future for women in the industry. 

“No, the man boss.”

Nora Potter heard this utterance in the early stages of her career when she was in a management position at her family’s chemical manufacturing business. 

She reports being excluded from some consultations despite having extensive knowledge of the business. Cleaners would visit her family’s showroom and ask to speak to the boss, and Nora would step forward, only to be not given the opportunity to offer guidance and share knowledge. 

Being young and female, my role in the business was not taken seriously by the customers, even though I’d been in training to run all aspects of the business,” Potter tells Facility Management. 

She recalls feeling at times frustrated by the prevailing gender and age bias yet acquiescing and “accepting it”.  Her father worked to ensure that her presence was valued – reiterating to customers and clients that they were in fact speaking to the boss and that her advice was factual and accurate. 

“He always made sure that my decisions were not undermined, which was quite empowering,” she says.

Not male enough to be the boss

Many women can empathise with Potter’s anecdote of being pigeon-holed into a historically female-centric role and assumed as not male enough to adopt a prestigious senior position – assumed to be the nurse rather than the doctor or the receptionist rather than the journalist. 

While celebrating the notable successes of gender parity in the workplace is important, iterations of Potter’s experiences scarily linger today. 

In March, American senator Gene Dornink went viral for misidentifying Delta Airlines pilot Laura Haynor as a stewardess even after she introduced herself as a pilot. Haynor was testifying in court in light of proposed changes to Minnesota’s safe and sick time law for state employees. 

The ease with which society continues to spawn baseless assumptions towards the capabilities of women emphasises the need for constant action regarding sexism in the workplace. 

The Facilities Forum vows to play a significant part in remedying the small but still frustrating instances of exclusion and provide a safe and comfortable space for women in the industry to bond and advance their careers. 

“We want women to walk away from an event feeling uplifted, feeling heard and feeling like they’ve learned something,” says Macqueen. “We have created a place where leaders are made, where fresh ideas take flight, and where our attendees can find their people.”

Co-founders of The Facilities Forum from left to right: Sally Hunt, Lisa Macqueen and Nora Potter.

Evolution of facilities management industry identity  

Macqueen, Potter and Hunt all hail from backgrounds adjacent to facilities management.  They are bound by a passion for people and crafting an inspiring workplace culture in an industry still prone to misrepresentation and underappreciation. 

“Nobody goes to school career days and says I want to work in cleaning or I want to work in facilities management,” says Hunt, the general manager of Cleancorp. “I think over the last 40 years it’s evolved,” she says. 

“Cleaning was left for the person who ordered the stationery, whether that was the office manager or the receptionist.” She now observes a more refined respect towards the intricacies of facilities and operations management.  

Previously working in London, Hunt has been in the cleaning industry for 24 years and has found a lifelong workplace in Cleancorp.“I feel like Cleancorp is my forever job now – it’s such a great culture,” says Hunt. 

Buzzing from The Facilities Forum fervour, Hunt is proud of Cleancorp’s majority-female-led team and penchant to lead with a people-centric approach. “I feel like we push to do things differently,” says Hunt. Such priorities contributed to Cleancorp’s recent honour in the AFR BOSS Best Places to Work list

Ascension into senior roles comes with support 

Cleancorp’s female-led team is an accomplishment worthy of celebration that some feel compelled to criticise. Macqueen will post team photos on Linkedin and receive comments asking, “Where are the men?” The team initially felt responsible to apologise for the prevalence of women in leadership roles, yet they are now “unapologetic about hiring for skill and talent” as it demonstrates the necessary evolution of the industry.

Hunt postulates that the willingness to advance women into senior and decision-making roles depends on the business, rather than the industry. “I experienced most of my growth as a senior leader in the industry once I hit a company that was not afraid to cheer on women in business,” she says. 

“Our middle management is male, but it just so happens that the talents we have found have been female,” says Hunt. Although still a frequently expressed fear, women can be bolstered without squelching the efforts of men, Hunt and Macqueen maintain. Gender equality is a male issue, yet choosing to criticise the lack of men in a team is not a helpful or productive use of precious time. 

A nonlinear and colourful ride

Macqueen is elated by the positive reception and feedback following the inaugural Facilities Forum event. 

“It’s taken us by surprise, what kind of an impact Facilities Forum has had,” she says. “It’s been brilliant.”

Macqueen – whose husband Hamish Macqueen founded Cleancorp 30 years ago – joined Cleancorp a decade into the company’s inception in a bid to enrich sales and marketing with her expertise gained from the “collegial” hotel industry. 

She recalls the initial difficulties of advertising cleaning – a generous supply of creativity and inventiveness proved essential to make cleaning engaging. “I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about marketing a cleaning business,” she says. “It’s been a really interesting ride.”

People-centric business

As aforementioned, Potter had an industry start in her family’s business, and now operates a proudly human-centric business that advocates for the safety of people in facilities and seeks to reprimand greenwashing trends and tendencies.

“My main mission is to educate people that cleaning chemicals in facilities can be harmful – there are safer alternatives,” she says. 

Although inspired by her current milieu in a leadership position, Potter speaks of the apparent lack of female visibility in senior and decision-making roles in facilities management. Women make up 22 percent of the global facilities management workforce.

“Some of the women in facilities management that I speak to feel unheard at times and that there aren’t enough women in leadership roles,” she says. 

Filling a gap in the industry 

The powerful trio behind The Facilities Forum experienced instant rapport when they met a year ago at a Women in Leadership event for the Building Service Contractors Association of Australia (BSCAA). Macqueen says the event possessed an energy often inseparable from a female-only space – a sense of comfort, peace and security. 

“It was just so nice being in a relaxed situation where we could mingle with other women in the industry,” says Macqueen. “It’s kind of rare for us to have that opportunity.”

An absence of networking events exclusively for women in the industry was an inciting reason for The Facilities Forum’s inception. Following the BSCAA event, Macqueen expressed her desire to Hunt to create female-only networking events, yet the busyness of life dimmed this lightbulb moment. 

However, a lunch-induced bout of reminiscence shared between Macqueen and Potter in November last year saw the idea resurface. They agreed that events such as BSCAA’s women in leadership forum should be available year-round – this was the rallying cry required to transform a dream into a reality.

“Nora is a doer – she gets stuff done,” says Macqueen. “She looked at me and said ‘We should do it, Lisa. We should do it’.”

With Hunt also on board, the trio conducted hefty amounts of brainstorming and workshopping. Macqueen alludes to fate and destiny, as things started naturally falling into place. 

“We had a meeting online and the more we talked about it, the more excited we got, because there really was nothing for women in our industry that offered what we wanted,” says Macqueen. 

A Facilities Forum event would be alight with stimulating conversation and a resounding feeling of warmth and intimacy. “What we wanted was for everybody to feel like they were at home – that they were in an open space of inclusivity,” says Hunt. 

The inaugural Facilities Forum event was alight with stimulating conversation and a resounding feeling of warmth and intimacy.

More than something for us

The trio envisages The Facilities Forum operating as a platform for women to network, grow their careers, develop a personal brand, share ideas and discuss good, bad and ugly industry experiences.  

“It is something for the industry more than just something for us,” says Hunt. Solidarity in instances of both struggle and triumph in the industry will be experienced through networking events. 

Hunt says an early intention was to ensure the tone of the events was the antithesis of a standard industry event. “It was about how you feel when you walk in the door and how women feel compared to walking into a standard industry networking event where you can feel a little on the outside,” she says. 

Tackling male-centric networking events 

The Facilities Forum pushes back against the occasional nature of boozy networking events that cater to people who feel comfortable and safe staying out late at night. “When these events are on after work with drinks, it just eliminates a whole demographic of the industry that can’t attend,” says Macqueen. 

The events will primarily be held throughout the day as lunches, afternoon teas or whatever format members cite as the ideal time for an event. 

“We don’t want to do a big drink up,” corroborates Hunt. “We want to go there and really bond, build trust and get the most out of each other.”

Macqueen says the forum will avoid the reality of walking trepidatiously into an event of unfamiliar faces. “We want people to walk in and feel okay about arriving without anybody because they know we’ve got them. They know that everybody in the room is there for the same reason,” says Macqueen. 

Maintaining momentum 

The trio are also eager for the forum to be an ongoing networking platform as opposed to a one-off event. “What we want to do is keep momentum going between each event so that when you walk in, you are walking into familiar faces and building relationships.” 

A Facilities Forum chat board, akin to a Slack channel, will allow members to seek guidance and advice from women old and new to the industry in between events. Macqueen recently interacted with a woman new to the industry who felt that the onus falls on newcomers to make connections. 

“We want to be able to help women connect with those who might be a year or ten years ahead to share knowledge and wisdom and help the next level of people coming up the ranks,” says Macqueen. 

Restricted by a fear of asking for ‘too much’

Hunt rejects the notion that help is a “dirty word” and asking for assistance is associated with submission. She hypothesises that the occasional hesitancy of women to request an industry introduction is potentially attributed to the tendency to remain amenable and agreeable and avoid creating a fuss. 

“We think this because we’ve been conditioned to think that way,” says Hunt. 

She reveals that she has recently been taking notes from the men in her life and acting like many men in business – devoid of hesitancy.

“I’m just going into meetings and I’m owning it like a man would, and I’m asking for things as a man would, and it’s working,” she says. 

Her desire to experiment can be said to come at a fortuitous time, as society is now encouraging women to abandon once “female-associated behaviours”. “I think the time is right as well,” she says. “I think if I had gone in with that attitude six years ago, I might have been labelled aggressive, bossy, unhinged or emotional.”

Workplace culture howling out for change and women realising the power of aiming high is a “perfect collision”, says Hunt. “I’m finding that I am able to be more assertive and confident without the fear of being labelled bossy or emotional.”

JLL’s national EOS optimisation manager Rebecca Cleary spoke at the inaugural event about the notion of “embracing discomfort” when having conversations in the workplace regarding boundaries, expectations and demands.

Embracing discomfort

The Facilities Forum vows to rid women of the immobilising belief that demanding respect is associated with pushiness. 

JLL’s national EOS optimisation manager Rebecca Cleary spoke at the forum’s inaugural event and discussed the notion of “embracing discomfort” when having conversations in the workplace regarding boundaries, expectations and demands. Macqueen recalls seeing a sea of nodding heads in the audience during Cleary’s speech – evidently, the desire to live peacefully with discomfort resonated with women. 

A combination of reasons including an unsupportive workplace and the harmful assumption that maternity leave will make re-entry to the workforce difficult means women may not aim high due to the belief that they are underqualified and inexperienced. 

The Facilities Forum aims for women to learn from each other when requesting their workplaces adapt to working parents. “Many women are living proof that working flexibly with children can be done brilliantly,” says Hunt. 

Macqueen postulates this failure to launch may also be owed to chronic tall-poppy syndrome and the desire to create space for everyone to prosper, which occasionally prevents self-aggrandisement.

“We have also maybe been conditioned to go low rather than start high,” says Macqueen. “I think sometimes we undervalue our skill sets, abilities and what we can bring to a company.” 

Additionally, The Facilities Forum seeks to highlight that instances of women being undervalued are now not only minority experiences, but deemed unacceptable.

“I think conversations are the only way to move things forward and change antiquated thinking,” says Hunt. 

Macqueen says they have created a place “where leaders are made, where fresh ideas take flight, and where our attendees can find their people.

A village in which we can thrive

The trio are already planning for the next Facilities Forum event in Sydney in August. Skilled speakers, excellent food and invigorating discussions are guaranteed highlights. 

Potter observed joy in the room at the first event and felt an acute sense of accomplishment. “Our guests telling us they want more made me realise that we are onto something very special,” she says. 

The Facilities Forum’s valiant efforts to connect women from all backgrounds and stages of life in facilities management are heartwarming. “We knew we needed it and to hear how it’s been received by other women in the industry has been amazing,” says Hunt.

An anonymous post-event testimony demonstrates the power of creating a community for women to feel seen, heard and confident in their capabilities. 

“Thank you Nora, Lisa and Sally for creating a village in which we can thrive. We are stronger together,” the testimony reads.

Photography supplied by The Facilities Forum.

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