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Real estate needs to step up the pace on improving gender balance says report

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.

While the industry is making important strides towards gender balance, the report says there is frustration that the pace of change does not match the significant level of effort being invested, in a clear sign that the journey is far from over. Despite increased support at c-suite level, not enough organisations have adopted diversity and inclusion as a business-critical priority.

The report reflects the 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: “Senior leaders across real estate feel passionately about creating an inclusive property world and their commitment to meaningful change is serious and genuine. This enthusiasm is tempered by frustration at the slow pace of change – a frustration which is also shared by the hundreds of women taking part in our survey. 

“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. Our 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. Our report brings this urgent and compelling issue to life in a powerful way.”

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”.

The 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 per cent to 53 per cent. This does not necessarily mean that companies have gone backwards, says the report, rather that employees’ expectations are rising. 

Sandra Dowling, UK real estate leader at PwC, said: “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.”

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