cleaning industry

Few women at top level of the cleaning industry

Organization pushes for gender diversity in top roles and retaining women
Thursday, September 29, 2016
By Rebecca Melnyk

More work needs to be done to propel women into executive roles within the cleaning business and retain their talents, says a budding organization called the ISSA Hygieia Network, an international community dedicated to the advancement and retention of women at all levels of the global cleaning industry.

While not all companies in the industry face a lack of gender diversity at the top, many still do. In Canada alone, women represent 47.5 per cent of the Canadian workforce, but hold only 26.6 per cent of senior management positions, according to Statistics Canada. While this data was gathered from overall labour force participation, it does include the cleaning and maintenance field.

ISSA Hygieia Network

In response to her own experience, Dr. IIham Kadri, president of Sealed Air Diversey Care, launched the ISSA Hygieia Network in 2014 after noticing “huge gaps in gender diversity and a lack of prestige connected with cleaning jobs.” She, along with six other council members, are intent on making room for transparency, while providing a global platform for women to network, find mentors and obtain leadership skills.

“We’ve noticed in the upper echelons of the industry there is no gender diversity and we want to see women advance,” says Linda Silverman, council member and president of Maintex, a facility services provider based in the U.S. “It’s about letting women reach managerial levels and not letting talented women leave our industry, but providing them with the tools to advance.”

Meredith Reuben, council member and chief executive officer at EBP Supply Solutions, a regional distributor of food service and cleaning supplies and services, says it’s also about rewarding institutions, from building service contractors to manufacturers and distributors.

“The ISSA Hygieia Network is about visibility,” she says. “And we’re trying to reward and create visibility for those companies that are helping women.”

These forward-thinking companies are honoured at an awards dinner held in conjunction with the annual ISSA/INTERCLEAN North America trade show. During this year’s event, the ISSA Hygieia Network—named after the Greek goddess of cleaning and hygiene—is holding an educational event focused on teaching women how to strategically network with colleagues.

“We’re focused on this industry, but some of the training is about decision-making, networking and best practices, which you can use in any industry,” says council member Nathalie Doobin, owner and chief executive officer of Harvard Services Group, a metrics-based, WBE (women business enterprise) certified janitorial services provider. “Some of these skills we’re teaching women aren’t janitorial specific.”

The training and networking are also continuous; it doesn’t stop after the conference is over. Members field all sorts of questions in between ISSA events, from how to interpret something in an RFP to how to handle an employer relationship or deal with a situation involving a family-owned company.

“For me, there’s a lot of women who just want to understand how to get from here to there and understand there is a path,” says Holly Borrego, council member and senior director of cleaning services at C&W Services, a leading integrated facility services provider. “Some questions are as simple as how to bid on window cleaning. It’s really different based on the level of the individual. That’s the beauty of the organization; it doesn’t matter what level you are. There are resources available to everyone.”

Barriers to advancing and retaining employees

A 2014 Bain & Company report: Everyday Moments of Truth: Frontline managers are key to women’s career aspirations, which surveyed more than 1,000 men and women across sectors, suggests that “ideal worker” stereotypes, a lack of supervisory support and few role models in upper management, hinder gender parity in the workplace and cause experienced female employees to feel less confident about their work opportunities.

Career expectations among younger employees, both male and female, are beginning to merge as both genders expect more work-life integration. Yet, the majority of survey respondents believe managing both work and family commitments slows or disrupts women’s careers. It seems that perceived “ideal worker” criteria, like working long hours, is still seen as challenging for women.

While it varies from company to company, many women think their supervisors don’t know where they stand in their career aspirations, or what to do or say to support them. Women feel less supported at the mid-career level, which suggests that “whatever is happening in the conference room reinforces men’s aspirations while eroding women’s.”

Regarding role models, companies don’t facilitate enough meaningful dialogue about how their leaders have attained top positions, while balancing work and life. At the same time, there are not enough female role models to look up to and, many times, men in senior positions are expected to fulfill this role.

The imbalance of women in top positions is a nuanced and complex issue, the report concludes, but there is much room for progress.

“For front line cleaning workers, a lot of time when they are women, it’s pretty difficult because there are typically a lot of other responsibilities; there’s family; there’s childrearing; the hours can be difficult because in many instances cleaning occurs during evening hours,” says Silverman. “If their work provides flexibility, I think that could help with retention of the workforce.”

For Borrego, building skills and not locking women into low wage jobs is another path to creating a less transient industry where women have the opportunity to rise.

“I can tell you from experience that I did start at the bottom level,” she says. “I had a small child and working at night kept her out of daycare, but at the same time I was afforded a lot of opportunities because I worked for a private company that was very proactive in helping us get the training we needed.”

Bain & Company’s research mirrors some of these personal experiences, suggesting that when companies are more engaged with women’s career development, they are more successful in attracting and retaining the next generation of top talent, both female and male.


Industry leaders in gender diversity

Irina Dounaevskaia, chief financial officer at GDI Services (Canada), a fully-owned subsidiary of GDI Facility Services Inc. (TSX: GDI), has been working in the cleaning industry for about 15 years. She sees a woman’s role in the cleaning industry from a case-by-case basis, where much depends upon values, how a specific company is structured and the level of support an individual receives at home from his or her family.

GDI, for instance, is people-oriented and gives its female employees opportunity for growth. Before she reached her CFO position, Dounaevskaia was appointed senior vice-president of finance at GDI, upon closing the largest transaction in the history of the building services and facility maintenance industry in Canada. Over the years she’s been seeing an increasing number of women attracted to facility management and the cleaning industry at large.

“I see more and more women coming to the industry, and more and more women taking senior executive positions, particularly in Canada,” she says. “In my opinion, the cleaning industry is still at the beginning of the journey, slowly but surely moving away from the old prejudices related to the woman’s role in the business. As new generations play an increasingly active role, the entire landscape is changing. From my vantage point, gender is a non-issue these days. People are judged by their abilities and caliber, not by their gender.”

Company values, it seems, figure prominently in how women advance into senior management positions. GDI is an equal opportunity employer and has a policy to support employee development, including educational and training needs. The company also tries to provide ample assistance to employees with their personal life situations.

“Certainly, our female employees take full advantage of the company’s practices,” says Dounaevskaia. “Quite a few of them have been promoted. We try to accommodate personal requests as much as possible. For many females it means an opportunity to stay home with their kids, when needed, as we accommodate their working hours and offer compressed weeks.”

Open dialogue is also key, along with how an organization is structured. Specific paths for advancement at GDI include paying for an employee’s education. Once a request is approved, the associated cost is covered 100 per cent. The company also looks internally first when filling job openings and offers internal training specific to the industry, such as Health and Safety WHMIS training and professional development to help employees gain necessary skills.

“We pay particular attention to the people we would like to promote,” says Dounaevskaia. “That is why we have a mentorship and cross-training program, to make sure the person is ready to take on and succeed in the new role when the time comes.”

Recently, one of the company’s female employees was promoted to a general manager position.

“Her potential was noticed some time ago and she was given an opportunity and proper support to be successful. Our vice-president of operations personally mentored and coached her during her first year on the job. She is now a valued member of the senior management team.”

Gender diversity under the microscope

At the same time, not all companies are structured well enough or committed to ensuring gender diversity and capitalizing on the talent pool.

This is why studies are finding reasons to justify women in leadership roles. For example, earlier this year, a Peterson Institute for International Economics report was released, showing that organizations are more profitable with more women in executive roles.

“As female participation increased in senior management, so did performance, providing more quantitative evidence of the enhanced decision-making and governance that diversity enables within an organization,” the report stated.

Also released this year was the 11th Annual Rosenzweig Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada, a study that tracks Canada’s 100 largest publicly traded companies. That report revealed that out of 526 top executives, 484 are men and only 42 are women, and the larger the company, the fewer women in leadership roles.

“We are literally awash in research that demonstrates the benefit of diverse boards and senior management teams,” stated Kristin Luck, growth strategist and board advisor and founder of Women in Research. “Increasing the number of women on a board of directors has been linked to improved financial performance, corporate social responsibility and an increased number of women in other high level positions. Yet in both the United States and Canada, we see little change.”

Developing female professionals

Facility managers and cleaning companies who notice these gaps can look to mentoring, networking and training as key pathways for more gender diversity

“Mentoring is really important,” adds Silverman. “One of the reasons I got involved in the ISSA Hygieia Network is there are not many women leaders, so I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to reach back. You should be reaching up, down and all around to collaborate with people and help people and try to mentor people.”

To some degree, she adds, mentoring might help condense the gaps, along with teaching organizations how to create training programs and be responsible for them. Such training, as Dounaevskaia mentioned, adds significant value.

“In terms of upwards mobility, we have to do everything we can to keep women in this industry,” adds Doobin. “Providing training and opportunities means women are less likely to self-select out. If you value them, they are more likely to stay. I think that often times women in general, but especially in this industry, will self-select out of opportunities to become a supervisor or building manager. I feel we have a role and a responsibility to provide training and showing them it’s possible.”


ISSA Hygieia Network will be hosting an educational event, “Networking Secrets of Successful Women,” on Tuesday, October 25. The event is to be held in conjunction with the ISSA/INTERCLEAN North America trade show taking place in Chicago from October 25 to 28.

On October 26, 2016, the ISSA Hygieia Network Awards Ceremony will recognize individuals and companies that have made an outstanding contribution to gender equality and inclusiveness within the global cleaning industry.

Council members invite industry to submit entries by September 30:

Read about the 2015 winners here.



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