Survey shows real estate sector with work to do on gender balance

As social housing makes the running on diversity, real estate yet to hit stride.

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As the social housing sector catches up to the concept of diversity, the real estate sector needs to pick up the pace, a new survey shows.

There is a “disconnect” between boardrooms and those operating at the coalface of the real estate sector, according to a new report commissioned by campaign group Real Estate Balance and carried out by PwC.

The report recognises the industry as making important strides towards gender balance, it acknowledges frustration that the pace of change does not match the significant level of effort being invested.

Despite increased support at c-suite level, not enough organisations have adopted diversity and inclusion as a business-critical priority, the report says.

The report reflects views of 844 real estate employees and 52 companies who took part in a survey and draws on face-to-face interviews with seven leading CEOs.

Kaela Fenn-Smith, managing director at Real Estate Balance, said: “Our investigation shows that there is a gap between the aspirations for diversity at board level and the lived experience of women working in the sector.

“(The) report highlights both the scale of the problem and the work that still needs to be done in order to move the dial in terms of gender diversity – bringing this urgent and compelling issue to life in a powerful way.”

To Sandra Dowling, UK real estate leader at PwC, attitudes towards diversity and inclusion within real estate are changing.

“But our survey highlights frustration with the pace of change and the continuing barriers to gender balance.

“As real estate businesses seek to translate good intentions into real progress, it’s important to ask whether gender balance is a strategic imperative within their organisation and whether they have the targets, measurement, accountability and incentives that reflect this.

“It’s also important to ensure they’re open with their employees about how far they’ve come and what more needs to be done to achieve gender balance.”

A similar study carried out by Real Estate Balance and PwC in 2017 highlighted a real estate sector struggling to make headway on gender balance.

This earlier study concluded that the stereotype of a predominantly white, male and privately-educated sector no longer reflected the make-up of intellectual talent coming into the real estate industry.

Despite this, representation of women in senior leadership was much lower than comparable industries such as banking or asset management.

Barriers highlighted in the 2017 report ranged from a lack of role models and openings for advancement alongside a reluctance to see flexible working as compatible with senior positions or open to men as well as women.

The underlying challenge was a culture in which unconscious bias was “ingrained” and which needed ‘adjusting for modern day business’.

Progress highlighted in the 2019 report is therefore encouraging.

This includes greater availability of flexible working programmes. Organisations are also more likely to have explicit policies in place on diversity and inclusion and have action plans and management training underway.

However, the proportion of employees who believe that their company deals extremely well with gender issues has fallen from 64% to 53%.

This does not necessarily mean that companies have gone backwards, rather that employees’ expectations are rising.

Eight out of ten employees (85%) believe that actions taken by their companies to address gender issues are important to their job satisfaction, up from 69% in 2017.

The report sees employees are far more likely than employers to see balancing the demands of family and career, along with corporate culture, as the biggest barriers to women’s progression within the business.

Employees also see far less change in culture, the area they see as most important in moving the dial on gender balance, the report says.

The experience of companies making the most progress underscores the importance of ensuring that diversity and inclusion get the same direction and accountability that would be applied to any other strategic priority.

In practice, the report says, this comes down to several key pillars for accelerating change:

  • Aligning strategy for promoting diversity and inclusion with business priorities.

The leading companies articulate how steps to improve gender balance can help organisations meet key business objectives such as attracting hard to secure talent or engaging with customers and policymakers

  • Executive teams set the tone for the organisation and ensure diversity and inclusion are recognised as business priorities.

This can be supported by building diversity and inclusion metrics into individual performance objectives and incentives as part of an organisation-wide accountability framework

  • Translate the headline objective of improving gender balance into an action plan that sets out measurable goals and how they will be achieved in practice.

If unconscious bias has been identified as a barrier to advancement, for example, the resulting action plan might include steps such as reviewing job descriptions to ensure the language is inclusive, removing the applicant name and gender before screening and providing training for interviewers

  • To support any action plan, there should be appropriate data, analytics and tracking to gauge progress, target intervention and drive accountability.

Essentially, what gets measured gets done

  • Policies are not enough to take the stigma out of flexible working.

It is important to tackle the attitudes that make many employees reluctant to take up opportunities to work flexibly.

A key part of this is challenging the assumption that ‘flexibility’ simply means reduced hours.

This is achieved by seeking to promote ‘agile’ ways of working, which may be part-time or full- time, and are flexible in where and when work is carried out.

The report also stresses the importance of challenging the assumption that flexible working is solely an option for mothers.

“Staff at all levels of an organisation can and should be part of a broader shift towards more agile working arrangements, promoting senior role models, men and women, who work flexibly can provide a useful way of confronting stereotypes,” the report says.

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