Diversity in real estate

27 Apr 2016

Policy area: Town centre & Retail

Phoebe Rountree summarises the messages and recommendations from speakers at a Real Estate Balance event on gender diversity

In recent months, I have heard a number of speakers at real estate events highlighting the need for the industry to shed its image of "men in pinstripe suits driving Bentleys" as part of a both a broader reputational issue and a productivity and business goal. This is said with recognition that the image will only be shed once the industry has gone a long way to increasing diversity across a broad range of characteristics, including gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, and social background.

At a Real Estate Balance event yesterday evening, speakers focused on the issue of improving gender diversity in a sector where only two real estate companies in the FTSE 250 have female chief executives. The business and reputational case for gender diversity is well established. On a macro level, the OECD has estimated that equalising the role of men and women in the labour market could increase GDP by 10% by 2030. And a recent Virgin Money report found that diversity in the workplace can reduce the risk of "groupthink" and therefore drive better decision making, as well as enhancing the connection between businesses and customers and allowing firms to access to a wider pool of talent.

What companies can do to support diversity

Bill Hughes of Legal & General Asset Management, which has been recognised as a leader in supporting workplace diversity, said that recruitment at his company is now firmly diverse, with about a 50/50 gender balance among staff in entry-level positions. However, this balance is not being sustained all the way to board level, and it was suggested that parenthood is often the point at which women's ascent through the ranks tends to stall.

Flexible working and paternity leave are two core areas where companies can provide support to help stem this trend. Helen Gordon of Grainger – one of the two FTSE 250 real estate companies with a female chief executive – argued that a lack of male role models making use of flexible working means that men feel less able to request it, causing the burden of childcare to fall disproportionately on women.

Lorna Walker of CBRE highlighted improved support for paternity leave as one key step that companies can take to redress the imbalance, and John Spurling of Spencer Stuart encouraged managers to start an early dialogue with female employees to plan their career trajectories and options for working arrangements at the point of parenthood. Helen Gordon also suggested that flexible working arrangements, often used by young parents, must be supported in both IT and workplace culture, so that flexible working can be employed without detriment to internal communications or judgement from colleagues.

Besides supporting employees through parenthood, Bill Hughes also encouraged companies to "make an issue" of outstanding female staff by actively profile successful women and their achievements in the workplace, as LGIM does. And Craig Hughes of PwC noted that gender balance targets can be useful as a tool to help drive a company in the right direction.

What women can do to reach senior levels

Of course, support from companies will only take women so far, and there are steps that female professionals can take to improve their chances of reaching senior positions.

Helen Gordon and Becky Worthington, of Countryside, both urged women to seek non-executive roles in order to gain the right experience. Such roles can be found outside real estate, and women cited their experiences on church trusts and transport bodies.

Helen also encouraged women to take risks in their careers, and Bill Hughes pointed out that candidates with rich experience across a range of companies are often more valuable, so urged all young professionals to take on a variety of roles.

Working together and sharing knowledge

The huge turnout for last night's event, and widespread industry support for Real Estate Balance, shows that many large companies are taking the issue seriously. Meanwhile, the success of bodies such as the Freehold LGBT forum is an encouraging sign that the industry is taking pride in its diversity. There are evidently significant rewards for both companies and employees when diversity in real estate is embraced and encouraged, and we look forward to seeing more companies sharing their experiences and supporting each other as they take this forward – with actions, as well as words.