As Brexit continues to dominate the UK property agenda many have forgotten how last year the industry faced one of its most serious scandals.
The Presidents Club gathering at The Dorchester hotel in February 2018 and the furore that followed an undercover reporter’s account of the proceedings led to intense speculation about who was there, what went on and whether it reflected attitudes within the wider property industry.
“I think if everyone in the industry was honest about it then they’d admit the Presidents Club story was its #metoo moment,” says David Cox, Chief Executive of the Association of Residential Letting Agents.
The debacle also prompted debate about the annual MIPIM industry gathering in Cannes last summer, and the extraordinary statement released by its organisers saying that “under no circumstances does MIPIM register prostitutes”.
Much handwringing followed and RICS threatened to expel any members who had misbehaved at the Dorchester, while RIBA warned it members of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ at MIPIM, and both organisations promised to re-double their efforts to change attitudes within the industry.
Following PR own-goals like this, some critics like to portray property as an inward-looking sector and point to the all-male guest list of The Presidents Club, which closed down following the media coverage, as proof of this.
The debacle also prompted debate about the annual MIPIM industry gathering in Cannes last summer, and the extraordinary statement released by its organisers reminding delegates that prostitutes ‘could not be registered at the event’.
Much handwringing followed and RICS threatened to expel any members who had misbehaved at the Dorchester and promised to re-double its effort to change attitudes within the industry.
Some critics like to portray property as an inward-looking sector and point to the all-male guest list of The Presidents Club, which closed down following the media coverage, as proof of this.
But Mandy St John Davey, who is chair of the Women in Property organisation, says she doesn’t recognise this picture.
“It used to be an old boys’ network, but I feel we’ve left that behind now, although there is work to do,” she says.
“More and more we are joined at our meetings by younger male professionals who see the value of women being involved; it’s becoming a much more diverse industry.
“The issues that still need work include unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, poor career development and the ‘mid-career drain’ which we’re also lobbying MPs about.”
Women in Property was set up in 1987 and has 14 branches; each one runs local events including social gatherings, site visits, personal development events and also the promotion of female entrepreneurship within the industry.
“Many who are women frustrated by their treatment simply leave their companies and instead set up their own businesses, so we seek to support them to make a success of that,” says Davey.
Different sectors of the industry feature varying levels of both enlightenment and female representation among their workforce.
According to Women in Property the industry average is 14%, although Mark Hayward, Chief Executive of the National Association of Estate Agents says in sales roles the ratio of women is 48%.
The technology side of the industry is also more balanced – half the roster of speakers at the recent Future Proptech event in London were women.
But it’s the property development sector that can sometimes appear most like an old boys’ club, although even here there is movement – Linden Homes sponsors Women in Property and Mandy St John Davey is a high-profile Welsh developer.
The industry has a long way to go compared to other business sectors, though. Many women still complain that persuading senior managers to help them juggle the demands of family and work remains a challenge, particularly in the estate agency sector where Saturday working, and long working hours, are the norm.
“Women get near to the top of their profession but then have to drop out to have children or look after elderly parents and that has an impact on the gender pay gap,” says Davey.
“We’re working to keep that top and middle tier in the industry and then hopefully the gender pay gap may narrow.”
Many property companies are coy about how far their journeys along the path to gender equality are proceeding. For example, Dealmakerz asked one of the biggest to reveal its ratio of male to female employees but it could not provide an update.
And the gender pay gap is also a good barometer of how far the industry must travel. Although some big-name companies including Knight Frank have made progress in narrowing their pay gaps alongside KFH, Leaders and Countrywide, many still have shockingly wide gaps including Savills (45%), Foxtons (36%) and Romans (31%).
JLL, which talks a good talk within its company blogs about diversity, admits that its own pay gap at 30.6%, although narrowing, is still double the national average of 14%.
“Women have been under-represented in the property industry for a long time,” the company says.
“This shortage of talent, particularly in senior positions is further impacted with women leaving the sector at a faster rate than men. We’ve made changes in our business and we’ve seen a 23% increase in female hires in the past 12 months.”
David Cox claims estate agency is one of the better examples of a gender balanced sector in the UK, pointing out that many of its senior leaders are women.
These include Valerie Bannister at Your Move, Helen Buck at LSL, Liza-Jane Kelly and Theresa Wallace at Savills, Naomi Murdock at Foxtons and Lucy Morton at JLL, to name a few.
“Lettings used to be seen as a second-rate, back-room role in many estate agencies but that’s changed now and the industry is attracting more women,” says Cox.
“Equality training is a part of our courses for letting agents and I would say looking at our network, it’s now a very diverse workforce compared to a few decades ago.
The ARLA board is not the collection of middle-aged, middle-class men you might expect it to be.”David Cox, Chief Executive
Five out of its 14 members are women.
Cox points out that four out of the seven ARLA Presidents elected in recent years have been women and the next one will be too – the two candidates who made it through to the final vote this year are female.
But initiatives within many sectors of the property industry are left to individual companies. For example, Savills last year formed a gender group made up of men and women representing all parts of its business in ‘order to shape the firm’s diversity strategy to positively contribute to redressing the balance’.
Savills’ trade organisation, the National Association of Estate Agents, has no specific initiatives or elements within its training courses, except to prepare women for ‘lone working’, including self-defence classes.
“Our approach is that we want to treat all people equally, which is why we don’t have any courses specific to gender,” says Hayward.
“The industry has changed enormously over the past few decades; 20 years ago, it would have been true to say that property was an old boys’ club, but not now.”