There is real momentum right now for positive change towards greater diversity and inclusion in the property industry. Following the furore surrounding the inappropriate behaviour at the recent President’s Club dinner, with some high-profile members of the property profession represented there, and amid an atmosphere of dread surrounding the imminent release of much-anticipated gender pay-gap data by large private companies, a turning point has finally been reached.
While the behaviour reported in the press that took place at the President’s Club dinner is not representative of the majority of the property industry, it reinforced the stereotype (rightly or wrongly) of an industry dominated by white, middle-aged men, which does not represent the modern society we live in.
A number of conferences and events have taken place in recent weeks in the UK, which addressed the lack of diversity in the mainstream property industry. Last week we attended a half-day diversity and inclusivity conference organised by the British Property Federation (BPF) in conjunction with Revo, an organisation dedicated to retail and placemaking in the UK, called ‘Opening Doors’.
There were about a hundred people there at the conference from a wide range of public and private sector organisations. It was opened by Paul Brundage, the President of the BPF and Senior Managing Director for Europe at Oxford Properties. This was followed by two panel sessions and a brief talk by Melanie Leech, the Chief Executive of the BPF.
The topic of the first panel session was about the business imperative for diversity in the property industry. It was good to see a diverse panel on the stage of both sexes, representing public and private sector organisations and some very high profile speakers. There were some common themes and key messages reiterated by the various speakers.
Brian Bickell, the CEO of Shaftesbury and Board member of Freehold, said that there was a real business case for diversity. His business is all about creating spaces and places for people and he questioned how they could do that, if their organisation did not represent the diverse mix of people in the community it served in Soho.
Robert Noel, the CEO of LandSec, continued with this theme, saying that it is all about sustainability. He said that in order to achieve sustainability for his business, they needed to make sure that the purpose of their business is related to the community they serve and to do that, they need to have a diverse mix of employees in their business and work with a diverse mix of partners too.
Having a diversity of people working with you means that you can have a wide range of opinions represented and make better, more informed decisions. This ultimately will also lead to better profitability and a lower exposure to risk.
Vivienne King, the CEO of Soho Housing Trust and Chair of Real Estate Balance, an association recently set up to address the gender imbalance in the real estate sector, said that diversity was important to the business and performance, which data supports. She said it was the right thing to do with a diverse culture being a more exciting environment to work.
Vivienne also spoke about how Real Estate Balance has conducted a survey among its members about barriers to progression for women in the real estate sector. Their findings showed that the key barriers are culture and behaviour at work, as well as a lack of confidence among women, particularly those in middle management who are not progressing to senior management.
There is also a need for more flexible working arrangements and more affordable childcare for working mothers. She spoke about the prevalence of unconscious bias in recruitment processes. Real Estate Balance offers training and advice to women in middle management positions, to empower them and provide them with the tools they need to progress in their careers.
Brian Bickell also added that his company offered unconscious bias training to try and address the issue of companies’ self-selecting people who looked like and sounded like themselves in the recruitment process.
Siobhan McKenna, a Senior Policy Officer, responsible for Diversity and Policy at the GLA, said that diversity doesn’t work without inclusion. “Diversity is counting the numbers and inclusion is about making the numbers count”. She said that Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, is a great ambassador for diversity and inclusion in general.
Despite the fact that there is still a significant gender pay gap at City Hall, it is much less than in the City as a whole (where the pay gap has only improved by about 5% in twenty years). The GLA Board is now made up of 53% women and has a specific diversity agenda and road map in place to become recognised as an excellent employer.
When asked by a member of the audience how an organisation could improve diversity in their workplace amid such a complex range of barriers to overcome, Robert Noel advised them to think about one or two things they thought could make the greatest impact and focus on doing that.
The second panel tackled disability and reminded us that diversity is multi-faceted and intersectional, as it is not only related to gender, but it could also include disability, race and ethnic background, sexual orientation or social class. Mike Adams, the CEO of the disability charity Purple, spoke about how businesses should view disability as a business opportunity and not a burden.
He said that the value of the ‘purple pound’ is about £249 million, but many disabled people do not like spending their money because they do not enjoy the experience of shopping in a shopping centre, because of the many barriers they face, such as poor customer service due to a lack of understanding of their specific needs and a lack of training in disability awareness. His organisation has started a campaign called “Help me spend my money”, aimed at improving physical access and customer service in shopping centres.
Giulia Bunting from Revo talked about the need to train people to think differently when addressing disability in the retail property industry and mentioned some of the initiatives they are doing working with disability charities and other organisations to try to overcome some of the barriers faced by disabled people when out shopping.
Ruth Duffield from Ellandi, a shopping centre manager, spoke about how they have a moral duty to assist their disabled customers, as well as seeing it as a business opportunity. They work with autistic people and those with dementia to make it a more inclusive, more accessible environment in their community shopping centres for them to shop in.
In her keynote speech, Sarah Newton the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, said that although we have legislation surrounding equality and disability rights, it should not be seen as a “box-ticking exercise” by service providers. Education and training are also key to changing culture.
Ed Cook, the CEO of Revo, closed the conference by saying that sustainability was key. The clear messages coming from the conference were that businesses need to engage with and understand their market, and they can only do that by having a diverse mix of employees and partners making the decisions.
Although we have come a long way in terms of progress towards achieving greater diversity and inclusion in the real estate business, this conference reminds us that we still have a long way to go.
But we can achieve a lot if we work together collaboratively and capitalise on the mood for change that is happening right now. Watch this space!
Joanna Turner, RE Women, committee member