Real estate has traditionally been a male-dominated industry but a growing focus on gender balance initiatives in recent years are starting to have an impact.
Studies have repeatedly found that gender diverse companies post better business performance, with higher returns on investment, greater sales growth and lower debt.
Yet as of 2017, women represented just 28 percent of board members at European real estate companies – though this is an increase from 22 percent a few years back.
“Today, there is a lot more conversation around gender balance in the workforce,” says Emma Tattersall, Director, EMEA Retail Capital Markets, JLL. “With several studies highlighting the gender pay gap and disproportion of men and women in senior positions, companies are acknowledging the need to address gender inequality.”
Last year was the first year of compulsory gender pay gap disclosures for large UK companies, driving many real estate firms to confront the imbalance in their workplaces. Where the average gender pay gap across UK industries stands at 14 percent, the pay gap in real estate is over double at 30 percent.
“The UK real estate industry has legacy issues to deal with. The traditional, male-dominated “partnership culture” still plays a part, especially at the top,” says Guy Grainger, EMEA CEO at JLL.
Driving change and balance
There are signs of change in the wider industry. Last year, a record number of women became directors of real estate investment trusts during the spring proxy season, taking 52 percent of newly elected roles.
At JLL’s UK business, although four-fifths of senior positions are occupied by men, in the last two years, the number of women in top roles has increased by about one-third. Nearly half of its graduate recruits are women, while women being put forward for promotion increased from 31 percent to 37 percent from 2015 to 2018.
Addressing the gender gap goes beyond attracting more women into the industry and senior roles, Grainger says. Equally key are policies that enable women and men to balance having a family with career progression.
“In other industries where there is a more flexible approach to working and more comprehensive parental return-to-work policies you see much better ratios of female representation at senior levels. These policies help to create an environment and company culture that is supportive of different career progression routes,” says Tattersall.
The property companies named the best to work for all offer flexible working, helping reduce the gender pay disparity as well as between mothers and women without children. Others, such as British Land, offer shared parental leave, which has also been shown to combat the gender pay gap.
“We must ensure that the best-paid and senior jobs can be done on a flexible basis and get away from the perception that senior transactional roles can only be done if working in the office full time,” Grainger says.
“With the rise of the flexible workplace, the way we work in general is now becoming more fluid – so there has never been a better time to make that change happen.”
Industry-wide initiatives can incite decision-makers to prioritise diversity too. Women Talk Real Estate is a non-profit platform that connects female real estate professionals with speaking opportunities – only 14 percent of which tend to be given to women presenters. Real Estate Balance is an association brings together female and male senior leaders to change corporate culture.
“Equality and balance isn’t only about women, it’s about trying to break down gender stereotypes for both men and women to put people on an equal footing,” says Tattersall. “It has to be a conversation we all engage with so we can address the toxic impact of defined masculine and female traits.”
A challenging future
And while change is gradually happening behind the scenes, it’s still far from visible in the real estate industry and the wider business world.
“Company initiatives for gender balance take time and money – the best incentive for these to be invested is if our clients say diversity matters in their decision making processes,” says Tattersall. “Until the industry starts to necessitate and prioritise diversity, it’s hard to make material changes across the board.”
Major players could drive industry change through internal governance practices that promote diversity on boards and in client partnerships. For example, Blackrock states it will only invest in companies with at least two women on the board of directors.
“Gender equality is not something that can be tackled at only a workplace level,” says Tattersall. “True change requires a concerted effort from within companies, industries, and government all at once.
“But we are making progress slowly but surely. It’s reassuring that there is conversation and a spotlight on this topic. The current climate presents a real opportunity to drive forward. In 10 years, I hope International Women’s Day puts less of a spotlight gender inequality, or gender pay gaps or gender specific issues – I hope that by that time gender equality will just be the norm and the world of real estate will be a more diverse industry in every way,” she concludes.