Photo Credit: Terminix

Jen Fox was working in retail — she liked helping customers and working with people. “But I wanted to advance in a different industry,” she says. Her supportive manager said, “You graduate from college, and we’ll give you time off for interviews.”

So, Fox went to a career fair at a local hotel where rows of booths with company representatives were set up to entice attendees to apply for jobs in different industries. Fox landed at the Terminix table and began chatting with a retired executive who was working as a corporate recruiter. “We found out that we both grew up in the same part of New York — he was so friendly,” Fox shares. “I was thinking, ‘If he is representative of who the company wants to recruit, I can fit in here.’”

Fox had an interview at Terminix and met a mentor, Sharee O’Toole in the San Bernardino, Calif., branch. “I fell in love with her!” Fox says. “She said, ‘We need another woman.’ I really thought, ‘This is a lady who knows her business and she is running an operation, and she was so friendly and knew so much.’”

Today — after climbing the ladder for 12 years — Jen Fox is a compliance manager at Terminix. She’s been called a “bug whisperer” and is one of five sharing a position that supports all branches. She trains on communication, audits and other technical aspects of the business. She’s an educator — and that’s certainly not a role she expected to play when she first struck up the conversation about pest control at a career fair.

“It’s not about the bugs,” Fox says simply. “I thought about it, and everyone at some point needs a pest control company.” From day one, she saw stability — and she made a connection with a friendly guy who had enjoyed a long career in the business. Why couldn’t she do the same? Why not bugs?

“When I told my parents, they laughed,” Fox says of applying for the job. “They thought I was kidding. They said, ‘You went to University of California, Riverside, notorious for its entomology program, and walked by that building every day freaking out that something would crawl out! You trapped bugs under cups and let someone else kill them.’”

Fox said, “I know. But when you look at this from an industry standpoint, the one thing that doesn’t go away is bugs.”

Education is a huge part of delivering quality pest control services, as is customer service. It’s a relationship business demanding client trust and communication — connecting with people.

“Where females shine is customer service, having empathy,” Fox says. “When a woman pest control operator shows up, that can break the ice (with a customer) and she can get right to work because the interaction is warm, friendly.”

Marillian Missiti, president of her family’s second-generation business, Buono Pest Control in Belmont, Mass., shares this example of really “getting it” at the customer level. She knocked on the door of a female customer who was incredibly upset about a mouse problem. She had young children at home; she was stressed. Missiti had a young son herself.

“I think when she saw me, she was relieved,” Missiti says. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m a mother first — I am a mother first. And I understand that you are trying to protect your family’s well-being and take care of your children. I get it.’ When I had that conversation with her, it was just like — you could see her breathe more easily.”

Photo Credit: Rollins

It’s no secret that women and men work differently, think differently and relate — well, differently. This is a good thing, because bringing varying perspectives into the workplace improves problem-solving. A Gallup report, The Business Benefits of Gender Diversity, studied more than 800 business units from two firms in retail and hospitality. Gender-diverse businesses had better financial outcomes than those dominated by one gender. In retail, diversity boosted revenues by 14 percent — and in hospitality revenues were 19 percent higher with gender balance.

The report adds that a gender-diverse workforce allows a company to serve an increasingly diverse customer base. And, that diversity helps businesses attract and retain talented women.

“The bigger companies in an industry have to take the lead and set the example, set the tone,” says Mimi Lufkin, CEO, National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity. “Then, eventually that will trickle down.”

SPARKING INTEREST. Setting the tone that women can not only perform pest control, but they can enjoy the job and create a career, is exactly what’s happening at ABC Home & Commercial Services in Austin, Texas. Now, 35 percent of entry-level pest specialist hires are female, says Bobby Jenkins, owner.

“Historically, we’ve had about a 10 percent female service staff, and there is such a big jump in women hires now — I’m seeing younger women applying for our service positions,” Jenkins says. “I don’t know why, but I’m very excited about it.”

Jenkins says the industry has evolved to more of a health-related service. So, that could be why. “I think more women see a bigger value and calling because of that,” he says. “Women have a lot of empathy and understanding of the different issues that can occur with a pest infestation, be it West Nile or Zika or stinging insects that can cause illness and pain to children. I think they see a real satisfaction in solving those kinds of problems.”

Why the influx of women at ABC? Jenkins says a referral program has always directed quality workers to the firm. He says, “We are getting a lot of female referrals who are saying, ‘You know what? I hadn’t thought of pest management as a career opportunity, but now that I hear the story and I have some people who I know that are doing this, it looks great.’”

Lufkin says, “There is a definite connection between role models — connecting with people who look like you and who are engaged in an occupation. If I see someone who looks like me doing a job, the message I’m getting is, ‘I could do that, too.’ If I never see someone who looks like me doing that job, it takes more risk on my part to make the leap. There are more barriers to overcome.”

Exposure is integral to opening doors for women, Lufkin adds. Research in the area of interest development shows that girls need to know they are capable and first have an experience that gives them confidence they can do something before they will show interest in it. “Confidence comes before interest, especially in women,” Lufkin emphasizes.

That’s why with students, STEM-based camps and after-school programs have been integral for showing girls that science, technology, engineering and math is accessible — and fun. “Girls can try new things and say, ‘This is cool; I’m good at this,’” Lufkin says.

So, there’s the connection piece of seeing other women doing a job — whether in person, through marketing or in the media — and having exposure and experience that gives women an “a-ha” moment that this job is for them, too.

While formal programming certainly opens eyes and is a critical link between the educational system and workforce, everyday experiences are important, too. And, it doesn’t always mean a woman is illustrating the opportunity. For example, a technician named Patrick that Fox knows services an account where there’s three young children in the home. “But we found out that the little daughter puts on a baseball cap and grabs a flashlight and she plays ‘Patrick,’ like she is an investigator and exterminator.”

When Patrick the technician visited the house, the little girl put on her hat and was ready to play. He would make it a game for her, asking, “Are you going to help me find anything today?”

Exposure shows possibility, says Tameka Taylor, a business adviser with Compass Consulting Services in Cleveland, Ohio. So, companies need to ask themselves: “What do our visuals look like? What do our marketing efforts look like, and where are we recruiting?” Taylor asks.

Jenkins says his company is running recruitment advertisements on the same radio stations it directs its customer advertisements. After all, women are making buying decisions for pest control, and he sees the success that women in pest control careers at his business are realizing. So, it makes sense to use the same marketing channels to reach customers and recruit female employees.

The message Jenkins delivers is focused on job flexibility, customer interaction, benefits and career opportunity. “We are trying to touch the public health side of the job, but that is new to us and we are still fine-tuning that message,” he says.

At Rollins, YouTube videos show women in the field. “The messaging we do to educate women applicants hopefully dispels what perceptions they might have of the pest control industry and shows an accurate view of how attractive these jobs are and how good the industry is,” says Henry Anthony, retired vice president of human resources.

Changing the messaging in videos and advertisements is yielding results, Anthony says. “As you well know, most of the people entering the workforce now are millennials, and they use both social media and the internet to educate themselves about employment opportunities, so we have really worked to change how we go to market to be able to communicate to women,” he says.

Key words that Rollins uses in messaging relate to customer service, financial stability, active and outside jobs. Plus, being rated a top workplace by The Atlanta Constitution Journal gave the company a marketing edge, Anthony says. “We’re certainly using that as a branding tool, as being a top workplace appeals to all applicants.”

POWER OF MEDIA. The media plays a notable role in changing our perspectives about who should do what job.

Lufkin points to crime scene investigator shows on prime-time television. The stars are women and men. “Those TV programs became so popular, and the demand for enrollment in forensic science programs in secondary and community colleges skyrocketed,” she says. “And, the programs were fairly gender balanced.”

Criminal justice is traditionally a male-dominated field. “But the programs showed a significant increase in female participation rates, up by 30 to 40 percent, which is really high,” Lufkin says. (She compared this to welding and similar technical programs where female participation is 1 to 5 percent.) “This is all anecdotal,” she adds. “But, the influence of media is huge.”

Take hospital shows such as ER, in which men starred as emergency room nurses. “We saw more men attending nursing programs, and most of them were probably then working in E.R.s,” Lufkin says.

The messaging is layered — TV, personal experience, school and corporate campaigns. For example, Johnson & Johnson ran a “Dare to Care” campaign to encourage males to pursue nursing. While overall participation from men is still much lower than women, there has been a jump in the last decade, Lufkin says. “Compared to a field that had no men engaged, we have seen a shift pretty fast,” she says.

What about pest control? There are certainly concerted efforts to encourage women to enter the industry. The National Pest Management Association runs a national campaign, focused on educating women about pest control careers. Its messaging reads: “Let’s face it…most little girls don’t imagine themselves growing up to work with insects. Even fewer would imagine themselves working in the professional pest management industry. It’s time for that to change.”

NPMA also aims to attract, develop and support women in the pest management industry through educational programs, resources and peer networking via its Professional Women in Pest Management group (www.pwipm.org).

SHOW US OPPORTUNITY! Role models give us confidence, they give us someone to learn from — someone to trust and talk to about opportunities. Fox says of her mentor, O’Toole, “I was always able to reach out to her. We always banded together, and our circle was pretty small.” Missiti grew up in the business, so exposure to pest control was not an issue. But, seeing women who did the job, too — that was rare. Her role models were her father and uncles, and she began working in the company at age 20 while going to school. “I was just answering the phone, that sort of thing,” she says. Her father suggested she do more — get a license so that when customers called, she could provide insight, knowledge. So, Missiti did. Then she started going out on the road. “I loved it,” she says. “I was my own boss. Was it something I was planning to do? Definitely not. But I saw back then there was opportunity, and I just loved it.”

It helped to see her dad grow the business from scratch to create a nice livelihood. And once Missiti began taking on greater roles, eventually selling accounts, she found mentors from outside the industry. Reputable clients appreciated her expertise and client care, and they encouraged her. One in particular was a dean at Harvard University, one of the company’s accounts. He saw Missiti’s desire to “do what’s right.”

“I designed a program for the school, and he was very supportive,” Missiti says. “He gave me the room and said, ‘Do what you need to do.’ That was him, giving me an inch — and I gave him a mile.” Missiti — and other women leaders in pest control — want to give back and be a mentor to other women. Missiti says, “It’s a huge value to invest and really nurture and mentor whoever is coming on board. You can’t put a price tag on that.” Missiti served as president of the New England Pest Management Association. “I started getting involved and then I saw other doors opening,” she says. Show women the opportunity. Let them see how they can make a difference. And, why not make a bold statement? “If everyone knows that your industry is male dominated, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing a media campaign with only women as pest control operators because we know there are men in the field,” Lufkin says. “The only way you change people’s minds about who is involved in the industry is to barrage them with the opposite perception. Why don’t we show only women because we already know the guys are there?”

Ultimately, attracting more women to the pest control industry involves mentoring, media outreach, proactive recruiting and creating workplaces that are inviting for women. Then, we might achieve more of a gender balance. And, with balance comes fresh perspectives and perhaps even more connection to customers.

Anthony says Rollins surveys customers with a Net Promoter-score based system. Surveys ask two questions via a brief email following service. “We get overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers about women as pest control technicians,” he says. “Trust is a fundamental part of the relationship that we form with our customers, and we find that customers respond very favorably to women as technicians.”

Today’s culture has high expectations of customer service and hunger for information — qualities that seem to come naturally to women. (Of course, this is not to say that men don’t offer the same quality service, empathy and knowledge. But the point is, women can and should be on the frontlines delivering the service, too.) “Ultimately, we are trying to make pest control jobs equally appealing to both groups — men and women — and we have to keep banging the drum and showing how our industry is appealing,” Anthony says. “The bugs aren’t going to go away. So, when people look behind the curtain of this industry and see what it’s all about, they’ll see that pest control compares favorably to other service industries.”

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.