By Rebecca Beatty
The Facilities (FAC) section in an embassy has a unique opportunity to directly contribute to U.S. National Security interests by empowering an often overlooked group of women in host countries. Research shows that gender roles and historic stereotypes in careers and professions are principal reasons behind women’s underrepresentation in trade fields worldwide. Consequently, this division reflects the different paths men and women take in education and vocational training.
However, gender parity is slowly evolving in the U.S., as more women enter traditionally male-dominated career paths; for host countries, this evolution can help eliminate the barriers that prohibit women from joining technical vocations, and it may influence the progression of economic stability among low income groups. Adopting these cultural changes with locally employed staff overseas could also advance mission goals for key U.S. priorities.
The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ (OBO) Facility Management Division recently polled facility management sections in more than 40 percent of all missions and across all bureaus. The average number of employees in the FAC section globally was 53, and 1 percent or less of FACs technical and trade positions (e.g., electrical, mechanical, plumber, carpenter roles) are filled by women, an average of half a person per embassy or consulate. Two reasons exist for this underrepresentation: women are not typically taught vocational trades and have not been socially conditioned to believe that technical skills are an option for employment, and globally, technical and trade positions are often occupied by men. Reversing this mode of thinking across cultures could help advance the national security strategy from a grass-roots level by improving the quality of life and economic independence of women in host countries.
The survey data highlighted an interesting trend; most women working in technical roles under FAC were not trade technicians; most were professionals employed in such roles as architects, engineers (13 percent), or safety program coordinators (23 percent). This is notable because it supports the observation that university schooling is the most common path for women into the technical world. It also suggests that certain jobs, such as trade-oriented careers, continue to be influenced by gender roadblocks. In essence, while it is now socially acceptable in many societies for some traditionally male professions to be filled by women (e.g., architects), vocational opportunities (e.g., plumbers) still appear to suffer from social stigma.
Women without access to university education also fall further into the gender pay gap. Girls, in any region of the world, have a higher out-of-school rate than boys, particularly in primary school, and do not have the same vocational options. Culturally, they are not given opportunities to apprentice with their fathers in the same way as their male counterparts. As a result, they have less exposure to marketable skills for the workforce which contributes to women living in poverty and becoming economically dependent upon men.
OBO’s survey showed that 7 percent of responding posts have no women on the FAC staff. Reinforcing cultural gender stereotypes globally within FAC, more than 50 percent of the custodial staff and more than 50 percent of the administrative staff are women. Often, women with lower socio-economic status experience cultural roadblocks that lead them to take up non-technical jobs (e.g., custodial work). Men of the same socio-economic group more often have the option to learn a trade that will yield higher incomes.
OBO has made progress in closing existing gender gaps within the Department of State. A link can be drawn between education and female facility managers (FMs); one cannot really exist without the other. This is evident by looking at the history of women in FAC. The first woman in what is now called FAC, was hired in 1972; the second woman (or first woman in the modern FAC program) in 1995; and the third woman in 2007. This data shows major gaps in hiring females. Currently, there are 17 female FMs out of 217 total direct hire FMs. Out of the 17 female FMs, all have served fewer than 10 years with seven joining in the last five years. One reason for the recent increase of female FMs to its current 8 percent, is that OBO looks to education achievement and not only vocational experience. This has helped open the door for more women to join FAC.
Female FMs in both leadership and technical positions who fight underrepresentation in overseas embassies are a clear demonstration of American values. Women in host countries who view these female FMs are able to see themselves in similar roles and may become encouraged to consider a technical career path that they had initially considered impossible.
“Seeing a female leader in a technical role has not only impacted my teams at posts, but also allowed our public diplomacy teams to show local audiences what women can do successfully,” said FM Sonequa Braddy who serves in Djibouti.
Female FMs can also show their technical staff that a woman understands their work, can advise them on it, and can lead them. If a female FM can do it, then being a woman shouldn’t be a reason that local women cannot.
Gender roles and historic stereotypes in careers and professions have an impact on U.S. national security. Diplomats work every day to advance foreign policy and the Department has an opportunity to influence local culture through individual examples. Hiring, training, and normalizing women in technical fields and vocational roles can impact U.S. foreign policy. As embassies transform from old houses to large campuses, the U.S.’ diplomatic buildings are becoming more technical, smarter, and more environmentally responsive. The modernization of these buildings and operating systems runs parallel to the specialized knowledge needed to manage them and will therefore create employment opportunities for more specialty technicians. This will, in turn, widen the job market and not only make technical jobs more accessible to women, but will make women who join the growing labor force a necessity to meet the rising demand.
Rebecca Beatty is the facility manager at Embassy Lisbon.