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‘You are very welcome’ Let’s make it happen

David+Mann+-+B+WAccording to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, 50 per cent of its global membership is over 50 and only 13 per cent is female. It is not surprising the property industry – particularly in the UK – is referred to as ‘male, stale and pale’. David Mann, chartered building surveyor and partner at independent property and construction consultancy, Tuffin Ferraby Taylor looks a little deeper

I hate that expression, ‘male, stale and pale’, especially as a 47 year old, white, male, middle-class, chartered building surveyor. I also just happen to be gay.

The lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community has traditionally kept a very low profile in the construction and real estate sectors or avoided it completely as a career choice. I believe this was because there is a perception, real or implied, that there is institutional homophobia. We have all heard banter in the office and on site, whether meant in jest or as a form of bullying, but it has resulted in the majority of LGBT people remaining closeted in the workplace for fear of abuse or career limitation.

This cannot be good for the individual or their organisation. It is incredibly hard work living a double life not being able to talk about your partner, what you did at the weekend etc. It can lead to mental health issues, job dissatisfaction, lower productivity and poor relations with colleagues.

Surely, feeling safe to be yourself is one of the most basic human rights. We spend an average of 10.3 years of our lives at work and employers need to work hard at creating an environment where everyone regardless of age, race, religion, gender or sexuality are encouraged and given equal opportunities. In fact, managers who demonstrate strong commitment to diversity encourage high levels of engagement between employer and employee. This boosts productivity.

The facts also show that inclusive and diverse organisations are more successful. Diverse boards deliver stronger corporate oversight. They are also 27 per cent more profitable and have 39 per cent higher levels of customer satisfaction.

I suspect this is not confined to just our industry but we do lag behind some other professional services sectors, such as finance, law and accountancy.

Four years ago, myself and Saleem Fazal, a construction litigation lawyer at Taylor Wessing, started Freehold, a networking and support group for LGBT real estate professionals. We were motivated by the almost complete lack of positive gay role models in property and no forum for us to meet and talk about our personal experiences. Many of us felt isolated.

By creating Freehold, we effectively ‘outed’ ourselves to an entire industry which I have to admit was pretty scary at the time as we had no idea what sort of reaction we would get from our clients, colleagues, employers, professional institutions or the press. I did not want to become ‘the only gay in the industry’.

Well, thankfully we were embraced and have been overwhelmed by the support we have received. Our membership has just topped 800 and we are represented in almost every major employer. In fact LGBT colleagues meeting at Freehold events have been the catalyst for many organisations starting their own LGBT employee networks. We have had events supported by most of the large surveying practices, law firms, The Crown Estate, British Land, LendLease as well as RICS and RIBA. Both Estates Gazette and Property Week have published LGBT features and some very influential CEOs and institutional executives have added their wholehearted support.

I do think it is important that employers create an environment within which people feel confident enough to be themselves. We equally need to be brave enough to ‘come out’ as statistics show that once a person knows a gay person, they are in turn less likely to be homophobic.

Stonewall has been a great supporter of Freehold and I would strongly advocate any employer seeking to create a more inclusive workplace to speak to them. They offer best practice for employers who, quite naturally, may want a steer in this area.

A significant evolution for LGBT equality in the built environment is the RICS Inclusive Employer Quality Mark launched last year. This lays out some clear benchmarks for increasing diversity in the sector, but it starts with leadership and vision.

RICS – as one of our leadership bodies – is playing its part both through the Quality Mark and its vocal support of Freehold. The Inclusive Employer Quality Mark is a major initiative by RICS to encourage companies in the land, property and construction sector to be more inclusive and diverse. It asks employers to pledge their commitment to adopting and continually improving against six principles including leadership and vision, recruitment, staff development, staff retention, staff engagement and continuous improvement. Many companies, large and small, throughout the UK have signed up to the RICS Inclusive Employer Quality Mark. Accompanying each of RICS’ six principles are multiple ‘proof points’, against which signatories will be required to assess – on a bi-annual basis – the actions they are taking and the outcomes to-date. RICS has created two separate criteria metrics too so that both small and large firms are assessed fairly and the organisation will be using the assessment to document the outcomes and trends for the profession as a whole. This is genuine progress.

We call on CEOs, construction bosses and all in management to be pro-active: make sure your business says, ‘you are very welcome’. And make sure they are intentional about ensuring a company culture based on respect, acceptance and professionalism. Company culture does not happen by accident. An environment of trust and acceptance is something that must start at the top.

Yes, we still have much to do. People are still being bullied at work and a large majority do not feel comfortable coming out. We need to reach beyond the big cities and encourage the next generation of LGBT people to realise that the property and construction sectors are a great place to work.

A modern profession needs to reflect the communities that it serves. Many of our clients recognise this and now look for organisations that exhibit best practice in recruitment, training and development of staff regardless of age, race, religion, gender or sexuality, often requesting specific statistics as part of services procurement procedures.

We pride ourselves on being a ‘people industry’; let’s just make sure that includes everybody. The welcome must be for all or it means nothing.

About Sarah OBeirne

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