Annual Flagship Event 2019


There was a palpable feeling of optimism in the room when Real Estate Balance launched the results of our new report, Fast-tracking gender balance across real estate, 2019, in conjunction with PwC (a follow up to our 2017 report, The power of real balance: What can your business do to improve gender balance?).

Welcoming an audience of over 130 senior real estate executives, Real Estate Balance Managing Director Kaela Fenn-Smith observed that, while there had been no significant change in the proportion of women at senior levels since the 2017 survey, there had been real progress across many areas and the “genuine intent to change is inspiring.” She continued “The UK real estate sector is ready to move the diversity and inclusion discussion onto the next level and develop actionable plans to get more women into senior roles.”

Hunger for change

Katie Kopek, International Director with our host for the evening JLL, is a role model for many – a woman who has reached the top, balancing a successful career and family life. She got the event off to great start, raising a laugh by reminding us all of a time when “skirts were preferred office attire” and groups like Real Estate Balance would have been “dismissed as a hotbed of rampant feminism”. Not tonight though, when nearly half of the gathering were men eager to effect change within their own organisations. As Katie pointed out, the discriminatory ways of the past were not always intentional, they were just never tested. Now they are. The current generation expect equality, a good work-life balance, and are pushing for change. Their frustration is that change is not happening fast enough.

Gender balance is business-critical

The report findings were introduced by Jon Terry, UK Diversity and Inclusion Consulting Leader, PwC, who highlighted that gender balance is becoming a critical risk management issue. “Reputation risk has never been as strong” he stressed. “Equality is a major issue – young people expect equal opportunities to progress and it is critical to avoid fatigue creeping in.” The survey results prove that gender balance matters to talent – 94% of women and over 75% of men rate it an important issue. “Listen to your people,” he urged.

A disconnect between the attitudes of employers and employees was evident. Asked about the importance of work-life balance and changing behaviours, 41% of employers thought they were doing well, compared to just 18% of their employees. Jon’s message to employers? “You think you are doing better than you are. You are not. If you only take one thing away from tonight, make it this.”

The ‘acid test’ is, of course, are there more women in senior roles in real estate?’ We had already heard from Kaela that the number has flatlined, so what is holding up progress? Jon summed it up: “Ultimately, gender balance needs to be treated in the same was as any other business-critical issue. It is not just a women’s issue.”

Accountability is key

A reoccurring theme during the evening was ‘accountability’ and the importance of embedding diversity and inclusion issues into the culture of an organisation. The Crown Estate’s Dame Alison Nimmo, where 50% of the board and 75% of the senior executives are women, felt that part of the lack of momentum is due to men still holding most of the positions of power. She challenged all business leaders to own the issue and make it personal. “As CEOs, you have a license to lead. Try to create opportunities for all your people”. Her message was universal. “Create a culture that unlocks all your talent. If you crack it for women, you’ve cracked it for everyone.”

John Forrester, Global President of Cushman & Wakefield offered further insight. “We did a lot of work telling our leaders what to do. The problem was we were getting a population (of women), but no traction on leadership”. The company realised that ‘telling people what to do’ is not the solution. Unless people have targets and are measured and rewarded, there is no accountability. Cushman & Wakefield now has 400 individuals globally who are supported, measured and rewarded on bringing through women leaders.

De-stigmatising part-time work

The need to change whole behaviours was reinforced by Duncan Owen, Global Head of Real Estate, Schroders, who said that one of the best things they ever did was recognise that addressing gender balance is simply “the right thing to do. It’s about stopping prejudice. There is something wrong that you need to right.” One of the main cultural changes Schroders introduced was de-stigmatising part-time working.

The views of smaller businesses were voiced by Trish Barrigan, Managing Partner of Benson Elliot, who pointed out that when you do not have the resources to invest heavily in consultants or training, you have to employ people who can hit the ground running. “Corporate culture is very important. We lead from the top and change by example,” she said. “It is important to be supportive of the whole team, not just women. Flexible working is available to all. We don’t call it part-time”. This was picked up by Kaela, who drew attention to the need to “change the dialogue” as one of the best ways of removing any stigma from part-time working.

Lively question time

Questions from the audience reflected the obvious thirst to make progress. “Who is doing it well?” The answer, from Jon Terry, was that no-one is getting it completely right but there are lots of different people doing different things well. “The trick is to identify what is important to you and look for the people who are excelling in that”.

“How do you balance aiming for equality and being equitable?” A good question for those concerned about positive discrimination. It goes back to “doing the right thing," said Duncan Owen, while John Forrester offered the practical example that for every hire or promotion, Cushman & Wakefield insist on a balanced and diverse group of candidates and an equally balanced and diverse selection panel.

Overall it was a lively, positive evening with a lot to think about. If you weren’t there, we urge you to download a copy of the report and read it. We also encourage you to spend some time with our Toolkit, a valuable online resource that we have created to help people create better balanced business. Let’s hope that with more like this, from Real Estate Balance, the pace of change over the next two years will be much faster.