Real estate must learn from #MeToo and embrace ‘we too’

COMMENT: Over the course of this week, details have come to light exposing the prominence of the real estate sector at the “secretive” Presidents Club annual men-only charity dinner, writes GVA chief executive Gerry Hughes.

Gerry Hughes, chief executive, GVA
Gerry Hughes, chief executive, GVA

While the existence of the type of event and behaviour that has been reported should shock us all, it is important that we are brutally honest and ask ourselves a few difficult questions about our industry. Are the reports of harassment and inappropriate behaviour really a surprise? Or is this type of behaviour endemic?

Let me be honest and say that sadly I was not surprised to see the real estate sector feature heavily at an event like this. The “alpha male” culture has long been systemic in property.

The creeping realisation that our industry is deeply flawed is why there are so many initiatives emerging to address the matter. Through diversity and inclusion programmes, mentoring and development schemes, the encouragement of flexible working, and collectives such as EG’s REWIRE, the industry has been working hard to encourage more diversity at all levels.

However, while these steps are positive, we now need to acknowledge what is not working and learn from what has been effective to accelerate change.

There are significant challenges to affecting change in the property sector. As an industry we have historically been slow to adapt, and you can see this in the hesitant attitudes towards technological change, or the reluctance to integrate alternative skillsets and professional backgrounds into the way in which we work.

Much of the sector has simply failed to realise the value that a diverse and creative workforce can bring, preferring to simply carry on as always. It is why we lag so far behind other sectors.

We must move beyond the polished rhetoric of well-meaning and carefully worded policies, and start taking direct action and driving change.

The kneejerk reaction to incidents such as the Presidents Club is to initiate protocols and new policies, but these are often little more than a veneer which is failing to change a deeply embedded culture. This is the crux, talking about diversity and putting it on the agenda are important first steps, but they are only the first steps of a marathon.

We must all take responsibility for changing our industry – identifying and addressing problems business by business, and exerting influence across the entire sector. We must listen closely for the quietest “me too” and make sure the volume of our response cannot be mistaken for silence.

We must move beyond the polished rhetoric of well-meaning and carefully worded policies, and start taking direct action and driving change.

We must get into schools and encourage people from all backgrounds to join the real estate sector. We must make it straightforward for women to rise through the ranks to senior management positions, and we must open our minds to the enormous value of people from different ethnic and social backgrounds, as well as different professions, working in real estate.

We need to think about how we recruit talent, train the next generation, educate our peers and support our workforce to bring their whole self to work. We need to look at the forums where diversity is discussed and ask if the right people to create change are there, or if everyone around the room looks the same. This cannot be about conversations that broaden the margins for those pushed to the side, but removing them entirely through action to create genuine equality.

Diversity must no longer be a point on an agenda, but what shapes and sets it. What happened at the Dorchester was a total disgrace and needs to be a wake-up call to move beyond rhetoric on equality and diversity. A diverse work culture is not an outcome of a successful company or industry, but its foundation, and if many of the comforts we are surrounded with need to be stripped away to repair poorly made foundations then so be it.

For those in positions of responsibility, my message is very clear: when you have the chance to make a difference, make it.

EG would like to hear from leaders in real estate who are willing to stand up for change. Email if you would like to make your pledge for a more diverse and inclusive property sector

Main image © LAURENT CHAMUSSY/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock