Making gender balance a reality in the real estate sector

A recent report reveals that, although real estate is making advances in gender balance, more work is needed to make it a reality


  • Kaela Fenn-Smith

22 July 2019

Many real-estate companies are moving towards improved gender balance, an issue that affects every property professional, particularly at senior and management level.

No organisation is getting it completely right, and even sectors that see themselves as being at the forefront of diversity are grappling with many of the same issues we face in real estate. But there are lots of different companies doing different things well, with clear signs that the sector is ready to move the diversity and inclusion discussion on to the next level and develop practical plans to get more women into senior roles.

"There are lots of different companies doing different things well"

In March Real Estate Balance with PwC published the report Fast-tracking gender balance across real estate 2019. This is informed by the views of close to 1,000 people in the sector (see Figure 1) with more than 50 companies taking part, and face-to-face interviews with seven CEOs.

What did this survey discover about gender diversity in our sector? While real estate has been making important strides, the pace of progress doesn't always match the huge level of effort. Given that our survey highlighted widespread employee frustration with the pace of change, a rethink is needed.

The slow pace isn't for want of trying – support is there at boardroom level, with policies and programmes springing up across the sector. And negative comments do not necessarily mean that companies are not committed, but rather that employees' expectations are rising. The current generation of women expect equality and a good work–life balance, and they are pushing for change.

Engrained unconscious bias, along with behaviours that need addressing, remain a significant issue. A disconnect between the attitudes of employers and employees is evident: asked about work–life balance and changing behaviours, for instance, 41% of employers surveyed thought their companies were doing well compared to just 18% of their employees.

The number of women in senior real-estate roles has flatlined (see Figure 2) – so what is holding up progress?

Ultimately, despite increased support at senior level, not enough organisations have adopted diversity and inclusion as a business-critical priority.

There is also the gender pay gap to consider, which as figures published earlier in the year show, is not closing fast enough. Is gender pay gap reporting a true reflection of how women are represented in our businesses? Possibly not; but it does tell a powerful story about the prejudices that persist in our sector and highlights the work that still needs to be done to change what have historically been norms.

Experience shows that the surest way to accelerate progress is to treat diversity like any other urgent strategic priority and embed it into the business fundamentals at all levels of the organisation. There then needs to be buy-in first from the executive team, and next from senior and middle managers, those who have direct responsibility for the career development and well-being of employees. We need to train leaders how to lead.

"The surest way to accelerate progress is to treat diversity like any other urgent strategic priority"

Measurable targets need to be set, holding leaders and managers accountable. We also need to remunerate in line with good behaviours; and we need to measure progress, because the simple fact is that what gets measured gets done. Organisations have to look at their data and ask why women are leaving, which areas of the business have better retention figures than others and why.

Real-estate companies are finally, albeit slowly, starting to raise the bar on gender. Many senior leaders are showing serious commitment, but there is also a clear leadership role for RICS to effect change across the sector, a role that we are happy to support.

Our report highlights both the scale of the problem and the work that still needs to be done, and it should serve as a wake-up call for companies who are complacent about the need for change.

Kaela Fenn-Smith is managing director at Real Estate Balance

Related competencies include: Diversity, inclusion and teamworking

Real Estate Balance offers a diversity toolkit as resource to help people build balanced businesses and a diverse workplace

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