In Conversation with Women in Property | Alison O'Neill

March 9, 2023

It’s been nearly 50 years since the United Nations committed to recognising International Women's Day (IWD) as a day to celebrate women and to close the gender equality gap. Building upon previous IWD themes of “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” and “Choose to challenge”, come this year’s theme #EmbraceEquity

In light of this, we’re continuing our conversations with some inspiring female leaders on how to address gender-based challenges, resolve imbalances, and encourage greater female participation in the industry. IWD gives us an added push to brainstorm solutions and articulate the biases faced by women in the historically male-dominated discipline of property operations.

That was the purpose of our enlightening interview with Alison O'Neill. Alison is a highly experienced Property and Operations Manager with over 20 years’ industry experience. Presently an Associate Director at Knight Frank Ireland, Alison manages a large number of prestigious portfolios for prominent clients. Alison is accomplished in all service charge administration and has extensive experience in the set-up and operational aspect of both Estate and Building Management Companies.

Without further ado, here’s more on our insightful conversation with Alison.

CIM X Alison O’Neill: Key Insights 

  • Visibility is central to greater participation. When young women see other women on sites and in male-dominated roles, they are more likely to follow suit.
  • The industry is moving in the right direction with female participation; when Alison joined property and facilities management back pre 2000, there were only four female property managers in the country. The situation has since improved considerably.
  • Getting more females into leadership positions requires taking the initiative to effectively network and build relationships, to the point where their colleagues and clients don’t want to deal with anyone else.
  • Encouragement, recognition, and visibility of career growth for females is important. As is equity, because everybody has different circumstances in their lives to be accommodated respectfully and on a case-by-case basis.
  • For technical roles, a high level of understanding of the basics is required. Women should have the exposure to what is required of those roles and to how the services and systems operate early on in their careers.

CIM X Alison O’Neill: Q&A

1. Career

Q: Tell us about your career progression so far. Why did you decide to join the property industry and what’s kept you here?

A: I came into property through the back door. I didn't plan to land into property at all; going back 25-30 years or so, I had a construction background and a health and safety background. I decided I wanted to get out of construction and do something different, and I ended up working for the developers of the The International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) here in Dublin as a Health and Safety Manager. It was from there on that my journey into property really began. 

In fairness, a lot of people who come into property or facilities don't have the experience or background in construction that I have, and even from a health and safety point of view, I’d say I was fortunate. It gave me great insight and I was able to pick it all up quite quickly. I immediately loved it and thought, you know, “I've found my niche!” That was probably back around 2000. So, 23 years on in property I've never looked back. I absolutely love it.

2. Words to Go By 

Q: What challenges have you faced professionally, and what advice do you have for younger women to help them navigate these?

A: Property Facilities is a very challenging role, and I don’t think people expect it to be so high-pressure and fast-paced. My colleagues and I joke about the pace at which we work - it's crazy at times, but it's good. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Dealing with that sort of pace is not for everybody. You have to be very focused. You have to be able to put your mind to it and work at a certain pace. You need to know this going into property and especially facilities management. You need to go in with your eyes wide open. Furthermore, there's a massive amount of on-the-job learning. I've had many discussions with people over various third level courses and the like, and no matter what they learn in textbook form or in the lecture halls, it’s never ever enough for what you will experience on the ground or on the job itself. There are certain things you can only pick up  while actively working in the job, and you can only achieve it if you are hungry enough.

“That's a massive part of it - to be hungry to actually learn on the ground as the job is evolving, to be able to want to know more. It's no good being caught off guard last minute, and then going, “oh God, this is too much for me…” – that’s the industry we are in.”

So, you’ve got to ask loads of questions constantly. Never be afraid, whether it's with a male or a female colleague, or a competitor, or whoever. Just ask loads of questions. Get the knowledge base and understand what you're playing with. Understand your platform and the people you're engaging with, whether it's tenants, landlords, clients - it doesn't matter.

I’d also say, work it to the best of your advantages. Don't see everything as a negative - it's not, and try and turn those negatives into positives and run with it, and it actually does work.

3. From Equality to Equity

Q: IWD 2023’s #EmbraceEquity campaign reveals that "equal opportunities are no longer enough". How could this play out in the professional world of property? How can we support women as we move from equality to equity?

A: I found this a hard question to answer, because I've never experienced inequity. Yes, equality is important as is equity; everybody has different circumstances in their lives, whether it's women or men. There's always something going on in the background.

In the world of property, the work environment is now becoming more aware, allowing for issues and circumstances. But we're still only evolving in it. At least as far as I am concerned, I'm more aware of other people's circumstances and the “behind the scenes,” knowing what goes on outside the work environment. So yes, you do make allowances, and you do adapt to try and accommodate that, but work has to go on too.

“We have to sort of be firm and at the same time considerate of others, and that balance can be difficult.”

4. New Pathways 

Q: How can the industry create more pathways to encourage women to join property?

A: Back in my day when I was younger, you just completed your leaving cert exams and then discovered a career path based on your results. It might have been too late to make that adaptation and transition into another field.  Property and Facilities Management was a difficult path to follow as there were little dedicated third level courses at the time.

Today, at Knight Frank, they are really geared towards encouraging young females and getting them in at a very early stage, to establish that exposure to the industry. This includes bringing in students via apprenticeships, graduate programs, and even TY* secondary school students. 

“We take in 16 year olds in for a week, and let them see how we operate. They spend a day in each department, getting a feel and a complete overview of the property world. I think that's key - get them in early, so they can go off and say “I would really like a property career…” 

I am fascinated to see Knight Frank’s support of graduate and senior school cycles; the systems they offer are super. I have to say my own daughter was in the office two weeks ago with a friend; the two of them were with us for the week and they absolutely loved every bit of it – they were drawn into a very professional, office environment. They didn't realise what property was all about until that particular week. One of the girls (unfortunately not my daughter) actually said, “I really want to go into property!” And she's now focused on what she needs to do next, from choosing leaving certificate exam subjects with property in mind, to exploring what third level course she needs to focus on. I think this type of approach really works well.

5. Industry Initiatives

Q: What is the industry doing well right now to encourage equal opportunity, and what needs improvement?

A: Personally, it's immaterial to me whether I work with men or women and I've actually learned an awful lot from my male peers and senior managers. I’ve really benefited from the experiences and advice of my colleagues down the years, no matter their gender. In general, I think it’s very, very important to show encouragement, in addition to letting people see that they're progressing up the chain, and that there is scope for promotion or for moving to another role. All people need to feel accomplished. They need to know that they can achieve something beneficial with their career and be recognised for it.

I’d say the industry is moving in the right direction; when I joined Property and Facility Management back in 2000, there were four female property managers in the country. It was male dominated big-time, and that has changed tenfold now. It’s been good, and more of that needs to happen.

6. Women in Leadership Roles

Q: How might we improve ratios in senior leadership roles?

A: I think women need to be more vocal and confident. Try to avoid being afraid to put themselves out there and build good relationships.

“The world of property (and business in general, but particularly property), is about networking, about relationships. You’ve got to meet that individual face-to-face, build a good connection, and nurture that trust.” 

As you then move to leadership positions, you’re in a place to go from strength to strength. You know who your colleagues are so invest in them, by instilling confidence and trust your clients will want to deal only with you – and you have the opportunity to step up to the mark. So I think graduating to leadership roles is based on the individual and how well and hard she or he works to build up those confident relationships. 

7. Women in Technical Roles 

Q: How can we encourage more women to join technical roles, and nurture them into Facilities Managers, or into mechanical and engineering roles…?

A: I don't think that sort of thing is really easy to encourage. I think the drive is either in you or it isn’t. I've had colleagues in the past who loved the idea of being a complete grease monkey and being in there with the heating plant such as the chillers, boilers, the air conditioning systems etc  you name it - but it's not for everybody. I think it all boils down to the person.

I do think there's a very important need for all women to have a high level of understanding of these technical roles, what is required of them, the services and systems, and how they operate. I'm not an engineer. I'll never be an engineer in that sense. I had very little technical knowledge - now, I have a relatively high level of knowledge. I got encouragement from a manager of mine in the past, and he brought me along that journey. He made sure I understood the basic processes. So while you may not have female mechanical contractors on site, you definitely have female FMs who need to know the basics.

Secondly, I think to get more women into these roles, it should begin at an early age - going back to the transition year in secondary school and graduate programs I mentioned, because a lot of young girls certainly wouldn't know about their options. Having basic knowledge and exposure from the get-go may help. I don't think it's going to be an easy challenge to overcome today or tomorrow, but it's all about education really, at the end of the day. 

And lastly, visibility matters. I would go to construction sites quite a bit, with my hard hat and boots, and I may be the only woman there - if you did see another woman, it was actually shocking; the numbers are low and it's unfortunate. Boosting visibility is critical.

8. Role Models 

Q: Which women leaders in property do you look up to and why?

A: I certainly have had a number of mentors over the years, both male and female, that I’ve learned a great deal from. I think it's down to your individuality and your own personality, and taking good pieces of information and advice and going with it, in the right direction.

“I think it's important to take aspects from everybody and to look and say “Well, okay, they do that really, really well! I like that, I'll adapt that.”

That's what I have done over the years. 

9. Learning From Your Organisation

Q: What are some great examples of how your company has empowered females?

A: I find Knight Frank very, very proactive on encouraging women and building equality throughout the business. Only recently, there's been a number of promotions and recognition awards. There's been a lot more female promotions in recent years than ever before, which is really great.

We actively celebrate International Women's Day. So all the women in the company come together. We go off to a beautiful girly dinner and have an absolute ball. It’s probably one of the best events of the year.

Our work isn’t easy, but I've fortunately never felt an uncomfortable or awkward bias. I've always been very welcomed in my various jobs, by employers and by colleagues. I've never had an issue and I'm very thankful for that. But I do think much of it boils down to your own confidence and your own eagerness to achieve; if you're hungry to do well, you will do well no matter your environment. I've been very fortunate, and I've enjoyed my journey so far.

*transition year

CIM Team
March 9, 2023