By many accounts, women have fought a long, hard battle for the chance to be considered “equal” to men, especially in the workplace. For the first time in the history of the United States a woman is as close to becoming the next president as any of her male running mates — what greater an indicator of how far women have come?

The stereotypical “Good Ol’ Boys’ Club” has been losing members for years now, but it still exists on various scales, depending on the industry and the region. In business and politics, “men only” might be the way some still operate, but, as is the case with those who fail to adopt more progressive cleaning processes, that attitude is dated. Progressive-minded building service contractors have been welcoming women to the business for years — and will continue to, as the number of woman-owned BSCs grows.

Times are changing
The good ol’ boys’ club wasn’t as much an exclusive club as it was a habit for men in the industry, says Jim Harris Sr., founder of Janitronics Facility Services in Albany, N.Y.

Not being a woman, he hasn’t experienced being outside of the boys’ club, but he agrees there likely isn’t a level playing field. American culture is changing, however, he says, and attitudes are changing, and now that younger generations are more powerful in the industry, their progressive attitudes and perceptions are becoming predominant.

“I’ve been around a while — I’ve been in the industry for 35 years, and I have changed my thinking,” Harris says. “In the early years, I guess I was one of those people who would say, ‘That’s a man’s job.’ But what the hell can you say is a man’s job today? You can’t even say that. So that’s all gone as far as I’m concerned.”

Unfortunately, there will be those who think the same way in 2007 that they did in 1967, whether they’re judging gender or race, says Tim Murch, president of Mitch Murch Maintenance Management in St. Louis. Murch listed off a number of names of female BSCs who are leaders in the industry.

“They’re all excellent for the industry. They continue to raise and elevate the industry, they’re very professional, they’re excellent competitors in their markets and a lot of them have CBSE designations, and it’s all positive,” he says. “It’s neat to see.”

While the glass ceiling seems to be a notion of the past, most women acknowledge that they still don’t feel like they’re on a level playing field with men. That may present some roadblocks, but there are ample opportunities for success if women create their own paths — and there’s plenty of help along the way.

Government regulations that require some projects to contract with women- and minority-owned businesses have proven to be a huge help for women, especially minority women.

“You really have to go after [those opportunities] because it’s still really not a level playing field out here for women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses. It’s just not,” says Donna Allie, president of Team Clean in Philadelphia, whose first big break in commercial cleaning was as a subcontractor at Veteran’s Stadium — awarded because her company is minority woman-owned.

On top of all the challenges business owners face, women must break through the men’s networks as well, says Sharon Dabney-Wooldridge, president of KleaneKare in Richmond, Va.

“I don’t let it deter me. I just go in, I know that’s what I’ve got to deal with,” she says. “I don’t always get what I’m looking for, but they know me, my name is out there.”

Men may not necessarily realize how they can treat women — whether it’s through words or body language — but to those women who have experienced exclusion because of their gender or race, the treatment can be hurtful or even damaging.

“(Men) need to understand they’re doing damage to us by not embracing us or just being accepting,” Allie says. “They need to be aware of what they’re doing. I don’t know if they’re aware of what they’re doing or not, but it’s an awful feeling.”

Members of Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI), she notes, have never made her feel unwelcome.

Wayne Simmonds, chairman of FBG Service Corp. in Omaha, has been a member of BSCAI for years, and has watched its membership grow and change. His daughter is now president of his company and sits on the BSCAI board of directors.

“The board is made up of more women now than it used to be,” Simmonds says, admitting the industry used to be “sort of” a good ol’ boys’ club. “That certainly has changed as there’s more women that are in high executive positions in the industry.”

Now, Simmond’s main competitor is a woman-run BSC.

The additional challenge of being a woman in a male-dominated industry likely helps motivate success that much more, Murch says.

“I just think that all the women who are leaders in our industry and have demonstrated a great deal of success, the one greatest thing that is driving them probably, in looking at them all, is they probably have more of a competitive spirit as a result of that,” he adds.

Playing the game, their way
While many women may not encounter members of the good ol’ boys’ club on a regular basis, they know those men are out there. Women in the industry don’t let those antiquated opinions stand in the way of their business success, however.

Women execs face the same challenges men do, from cutting the budget to finding quality employees. Women and men, for the most part, are in the game together, even if they aren’t playing by all the same rules yet.

“Often, I feel like I’m playing a game where I don’t know all the rules,” says Beverly Jurenko, former owner of Best Cleaning Services LLC in Houston. “For this reason, I’m not afraid to walk away from working with difficult people. The world’s size is immense and I want to play my own game, and play it well.”

Jurenko, a panelist at the women’s forum at this year’s BSCAI convention, plays her game quite well, and has earned great success and accolades in the industry and in her region because of it.

Jamie Van Vuren, president of Bee Line Building Service and Supply in Schaumberg, Ill., says it’s rare but when she does get confronted by old school male attitudes, she doesn’t back down.

“The best way to deal with that is to have confidence in your company and if you have a successful, solid company and you’re doing the right things the right way and you have systems in place, then you just go for it, head-on,” Van Vuren says.

It’s no secret that men deal with men differently than they typically deal with women — which women are keenly aware of.

“If you are trying to win jobs from dudes, bring a dude with you,” Jurenko suggests frankly. “If your target customer doesn’t want to deal with a woman, he may like the dude.”

That may not solve all of a woman’s problems, however. Other women attest to being treated differently by men, even when they bring a man with them.

“I have been in meetings where the men are talking about operational issues and they’ll talk directly to a subordinate of mine who may be a male and will act like I’m a ghost, that I’m not even there,” says Allie.

“Men start talking about football, basketball, all kinds of stuff that I’m not engaged in and I’ll sit there and play with my Blackberry until they’re finished and ready to start the meeting,” she says.

A few women, like Allie, have hired their husbands to work under them in high-ranking company positions. While that is seen as an unconventional situation by some people, especially men, it’s not surprising that a woman who can successfully run a company wouldn’t be fazed being her husband’s boss. In such relationships, women often view the professional side of things as just as important a partnership as their marriage.

Lisa Bands, president of My Cleaning Services in Baltimore, had been deeply entrenched in her father’s family business for years when she married her husband, now company vice president. She’s seen women take over companies after their husbands have died or been disabled, and has seen women’s husbands take over their father’s companies, and didn’t understand why more women didn’t seem to want to step into that leadership role other than by default.

“I thought to myself, no way, I’ve worked all these years, I’m not going to let anyone take over the company, husband or whatever,” Bands says. “I guess I was the next generation coming along and doing things differently.”

Networking a key to success
Another way many women deal with the good ol’ boys’ culture is by creating sort of a girls’ club, relying on each other for advice and support. Sometimes, it’s all about who you know, Dabney-Wooldridge says, and business relationships, especially with other women, are vital.

Van Vuren agrees, as it’s nice to be on the same page as other women who understand the unique demands of running a business and a family.

“The best advice I get is from other women I know in the industry,” she says. “There’s definitely a form of support knowing there’s other women out there doing the same thing.”

Many women who are members of BSCAI and ISSA are also members of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), which has been instrumental for women in all industries.

Bands says she’s never encountered the glass ceiling she’d heard about for years. Men in the Baltimore market were very welcoming to her, partly because of their relationship with her father, who had earned a good reputation there. The business was heavily involved in Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), which is where Bands did a lot of her networking. At first, there were only a few other women at meetings.

“Eventually I started seeing more women. A lot of those women back then worked very hard, harder than the men almost, like they were out to prove themselves,” Bands says. “And it’s amazing now, especially going to BOMA, seeing how many women there are. It’s probably half and half.”

Women-owned business membership in cleaning associations, however, is nowhere near half and half. The industry is still extremely male-dominated, despite the slowly increasing presence of women. Those who have been in the industry for decades have witnessed the change, and many welcome it.

Men and women are now playing the same game, and women understand that beyond any gender differences, all business owners have the same goals.

“Ultimately, our goals are the same as businesspeople, but because of our social and economic backgrounds, the way we get there is usually different,” says Dabney-Wooldridge.

“We all face the same challenges, face the same obstacles, face the same successes,” says Van Vuren.

The future is in the hands of the competent, Harris says — and most would agree. Male or female, those who are succeeding in the industry are doing so because of their business-smarts, perseverance and a little help from their friends.

CleanLink: Additional Info
Smart Podcasts For The Commercial Cleaning Industry

Listen to Lisa Bands, president of My Cleaning Services in Baltimore, explain why women business owners typically experience a different work/life balance than men — and how not to treat this as a disadvantage.