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17 July 2019
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Shattering other glass ceilings

9 June 2016 | Martin Read

In 2008, when conceding defeat in her campaign to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for US president, Hillary Clinton gave a speech. 

Despite an energetic campaign, Clinton had been pipped at the post by the (then) fresh-faced junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. What was remarkable, and for many so frustrating, was how unbearably close Clinton had come to becoming the first woman nominated for the office of president by either of her country’s two principal political parties. Even those siding with Obama’s candidacy would have been impressed with her words at the time.

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before.”

Stirring stuff. And indeed, wholly appropriate in the circumstances; the phrase ‘glass ceiling’ – traditionally applied to women prevented from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy – has become all too familiar since its first reported use in the 1970s. In 2008, the US came thrillingly close to breaking it with the most important elected office in the world. 

But glass ceilings aren’t just about a bar to female participation in an organisation’s higher echelons. It’s a powerful phrase often used to describe situations in which conventional policy excludes the involvement of otherwise suitably qualified individuals for no better reason than historical precedent.

I recently spent an enjoyable hour or two in the company of a facilities manager whose role in her company is something a bit special. No names, no pack drill (please keep an eye out for her story in a forthcoming edition), but a few years ago this particular FM was made a partner in her organisation – a co-ownership status afforded to around a sixth of the company’s employees.

Partner status such as with this firm (in the financial services arena), typically means an equity stake, and in this case it was a first for the FM function. The effect? The providers of facilities services taken seriously, their importance better understood by all who use them.

Much is spoken by those who bemoan the lack of an FM functioning “at board level”, and, to be clear, this isn’t what’s happening here. (Our FM does, however, report in to the organisation’s chief operating officer.) But what partner status achieves is to show to others how FM can be delivered by someone at the same level as providers of other mission-critical functions. Those with partner status also get a sense of ownership of their businesses – because they literally do have a degree of legal ownership of them. The glass ceiling? It’s one way of avoiding it all together.

There’s something to be said about focusing in on how the FM function is accepted, respected and positioned when matched against a range of different forms of company structure, and perhaps that’s the cue for a specific research programme. For now, it’s worth reflecting on the possibilities such models offer for advancing FM’s status within organisations.

Martin Read is managing editor of FM World