Femme FM: ending isolation for women in facilities management

by Sophie Berrill
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Sharon Burton

Facility management has a reputation for being a bit of a boys’ club. Although more women are entering the field, women still make up just 22 percent of the global FM workforce.

“When you’re a female in a male-dominated industry, it can be really lonely,” says Sharon Burton, an associate director at CBRE Asia Pacific.

“We get treated very differently.”

Burton has worked in facilities management for almost 12 years, and is no stranger to the feeling of being the only woman on her team.  

Despite improvements to gender balance in the profession, she still saw a need to carve out space for women at her company to convene for mutual support and mentorship. So she spearheaded an initiative called Femme FM.

The road to Femme FM

It all started when Burton was nominated for a leadership program for women that CBRE outsource, which she participated in for about eight months. 

As part of the program, she had to come up with an ‘ask’ of the executive committee and then present that at the end of the program. She went with ‘Women In Facilities Management’ in October 2022, later renaming it Femme FM. 

At the first meeting of Femme FM in February 2023, an international spokesperson shared her experience in property management. The group then had a general question session about facilities. 

Burton says Kristiana Greenwood, the first chair for Facilities Management Australia, is booked for the next session. 

“I’m hoping to get women speakers, and even male speakers to talk about the difference that they find having women versus men. It’s also just about creating that safe space for women to be able to ask questions and lean on each other,” she says.

Who can get involved 

Anyone can be involved in this gender-inclusive group, according to Burton. 

“Initially the invite went out to women within the facilities management space, so whether that be a facilities coordinator, assistant facilities manager, facilities manager or associate director,” she says.

“We do have a couple of men who come to meetings as our allies, who spread the message within CBRE as well.”

At the moment Femme FM is within CBRE only, but Burton says she would love for it to grow beyond the company.

Is FM’s gender problem improving?

Burton says there can still be a “lack of respect” towards her as a woman and towards her skill set.

“In some meetings I’ve been ignored. Even about properties that I look after, my male colleagues will get asked the question instead of me. There’s a lot of disrespect and dismissal towards me at times,” she says.

“At times, it does feel like it has improved and then other times there’s a complete setback, like we haven’t made a lot of progress at all.”

“I think it depends on who you’re dealing with as well. I’ve worked in retail and government, so you get a wide variety of people. There are also clients, tenants and contractors. I think that some contractors might find it difficult explaining things to women, thinking that we don’t understand.” 

At times, it does feel like it has improved and then other times there’s a complete setback, like we haven’t made a lot of progress at all.

Burton never had a similar collective to lean on before Femme FM. Connecting has allowed other members to air challenges comparable to her own.

“We get very isolated or siloed and so you feel like you’re really alone. That was my main driver of creating this, so women could feel comfortable reaching out and knowing who to contact.”

It’s early days for Femme FM, but the feedback has been positive so far, with attendees even ringing Burton after sessions for advice and support. She recommends other people start similar initiatives – although she cautions against an ‘us and them’ approach.

“I think we definitely need to work together. That’s why Femme FM is not like a hardline ‘no men’ sort of thing, because we need to have them as allies and to be working with them. And then they need to become allies outside of the initiative.”

To learn more about the status of women in FM, read insights from the IFMA’s report.

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