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Debating gender equality in the property sector

Gender Post It Notes

Written By: Adam Jupp 7/8/15

Experts from Manchester’s property scene gathered to discuss the issue.

There is a well-reported skills shortage in the property sector, which threatens to hinder the ability the pipeline of projects that has built up.

And that is compounded by the fact women make up a comparatively low proportion of the workforce in the sector.

That was the focus of a discussion held at the Manchester office of Laing O’Rourke.

It was kicked-off by the firm’s business leader for the north Tom Higgins , who said: “It’s a massive issue in the property sector.

“It’s well publicised there is a skills shortage in construction and property generally. If you go back six or seven years ago, thousands of people left the sector during the recession and that has created a massive pinch point.

“There is then an issue whereby, 20 per cent of the workforce are within 10 years of retirement. So, just do that maths and if we don’t do anything, then in 20-25 years time, this will not be a sector.

“We need to find a way of dealing with it and the easiest way to deal with it is to look at diversity and gender equality.

“If you look outwith the property sector in the UK, I think the female contingent accounts for 46-50 per cent but within property, it is something like 13 per cent. “That’s a massive massive difference.

“What’s really interesting to me is to ask how do we deal with this? It is a topic most people dance around but nobody grabs it by the scruff of the neck.”

Panellists were asked about the situation within their individual fields.

Mike Blakey , who heads the property team in the Manchester office of law firm Hill Dickinson, said: “I don’t have the figures but certainly I wouldn’t imagine the situation is anywhere near as bad as that within the legal sector.

“There doesnt seem to be that much of a discrepency within our firm and in terms of recruitment each year, it is about a 50-50 split in terms of men and women across all disciplines.

“The construction team within our firm is probably more male dominant but in terms of the commercial property side of things, I don’t think it is a particular issue.”

Nicola Rigby , planning and regeneration director at Bilfinger GVA, said: “From our perspective, I suppose in our planning team, it is probably one of the most diverse areas and there are more women than men in my team.

“But I was talking to a few of the guys this week about it and it is quite interesting.

“They were saying when you go through university studying planning, the courses are about 50-50 men and women, so in 15 years time, you’d like to think the sector will be the same.

“If it isn’t, you’ve got to really question why it isn’t following through to practice.

“And I do think planning is a bit of an anomaly because if you take that out of equation and look at things like our agency team and if you look at our board, there are very very few women in those roles.

“We do have a female regional senior director, of our Bristol office, who is the first female RSD in the firm. And when she got that role, it was reported along the lines of her being the first female RSD and that was the news, that was the story.

“I don’t believe in quotas. People should have a job on merit but there is a lack of representation at a senior level.”

Higgins added: “Construction has always been seen as a very male dominated, aggressive industry but that’s just because it’s the way it’s always been. It doesn’t have to be like that. If we keep going that way, in 25 years time, we wont have an industry.”

Aisling McNulty , development surveyor at Bruntwood, said: “We had a graduate intake last year and we spread these people around different departments and we didn’t get any female applicants, which was quite a shock.

“So there is an issue, I think, at an education level. Property and constrcution is a really interesting field and we have to ask why don’t other people feel that? Is it because it is seen as hard hats on a building site?

“There is still that lack of transparency and understanding about what it is all about.”

Speaking generally about the industry, Rigby added: “Like it or not, you can still walk into a room and be a woman in a meeting and the rest of the people there are men and it does set a tone. I think at any level that’s true but it is probably more apparent for younger women, who would perhaps feel a little but intimidated.”

McNulty said: “I go to meetings and in about 80 per cent of them, I’m the only woman. Maybe you have to be a certain type of person for that not to bother you.”

The group agreed setting quotas for the number of females in senior roles was not helpful but that it was important to have targets in mind.

The debated turned to whose responsibility it was to encourage more females into the sector – education providers or businesses themselves.

Rigby said: “It is us ultimately who need the people, so it is our responsibility to make sure the people coming through are the right people, so when you get programmes you are getting the right mix of people applying for those programmes and getting those jobs.

“I think role models are fundamental. In my career, I’ve been really lucky to have a mentor in the business I have a really good relationship with and, in her, I can see the opportunities for my career to grow. It is important as a woman to have that and to see people who you respect and you believe you could mirror.

“Without that I don’t think I would have developed in the way I have within our business. It just makes more sense to you with a mentor like that.”

McNulty said: “It is about having someone to support you and test you. It doesn’t have to be a woman but just someone who is there and I think getting those role models in place at an earlier age, in schools, is really important.

“There is a sea of young people out there we don’t have access to who could be the future of our business.”

Rigby added: “We don’t want a situation where a woman behaves in a certain way because she feels she has to because that is not diversity either.

“It feels like education has to be such a big part of the solution here, in terms of educating people about what our jobs actually entail.”

McNulty said: “We can’t say these things are wrong and then not do anything about it.”

Higgins said: “We all agree there is an issue but what are we going to do about it?

“From my perspective, we need to tackle it as a wider sector and if we’re going in to target schools, we need to be looking at doing it with four or five of us from a sector, rather than just an individual company.”

Rigby added: “That comes back to that role model point because there aren’t enough role models to be able to go to a girls’ school as a group of women to sell the industry, so we need to draw on the wider sector.

“I’d love to get to the point where we have a collective commitment to do something about it and to go and speak to people in schools, ask them what they think property is as a career and demonstrate what options are open to them.”

Source: Manchester Evening News http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/property/debating-gender-equality-property-sector-9809498

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