It’s easy to think in our modern world that gender inequality in the workplace is a thing of the past. In some industries this may be true, but in the majority of cases the reality is disappointing, particularly in real estate. 

In a recent survey of 40 of the top real estate businesses, women accounted for only 20% of Board members. In banking, the equivalent figure is31%. It is surely fundamental to its success that our industry is represented by people of all genders, races and religions. Having open discussions to highlight the issues at play and implement solutions backed by current leadership is the only way we can tackle this head on and strive for change. 

MIPIM is a major international real estate conference bringing together thousands of people working across the real estate sector from across the globe, starting next Tuesday in Cannes. There have been plenty of negative press articles recently, citing the male-dominated nature of the event but it’s good to see that our real estate team will be represented at MIPIM by an almost equal number of men and women (5 men and 4 women). I have noticed a push in recent years towards women-only networking events, and MIPIM is no exception, but I question whether this is a viable solution. While it provides ‘safe’ events for women seeking to meet other female professionals in the industry, it can never provide the cultural overhaul the industry so desperately needs; rather it reinforces the stereotype of male-heavy main events and I query whether this only widens the divide. 

Looking back 10 years to one of the first networking events I attended, I remember feeling overwhelmed when I walked into a room to see groups of men talking in closed circles. As I tried to include myself in conversations, it struck me how much easier this might be if I was a man. Although I doubt that anyone there intended to make me feel that way, it was the culture I’d entered into. I knew then that this would be a challenge I’d have to overcome many times throughout my career. I don’t feel the same way attending networking events now but that is probably down to me gaining experience and learning to adapt to these environments, rather than because of a change in industry norms; certainly at the top of the profession, networking events are still sadly predominantly male represented.

Although the wider real estate sector remains heavily underrepresented by women, I have seen a marked shift within Grant Thornton over the course of my career. Within our team, we have an almost equal number of female and male trainees, and our gender balance at senior levels has improved over the past few years. Our CEO sets a fantastic example as a strong female leader, and inspires us to champion for change and act as equals from the outset. It’s one battle to change the culture in businesses already discussing gender imbalance, but what about those businesses who haven’t recognised this as an issue yet? The key to change is leading by example, and encouraging normal professional women to break through barriers to reach the very top of the real estate industry. As Caroline McCabe, a member of our Real Estate team put it “We need women who don’t conform to traditional male behaviour patterns to lead the way”.  

Encouraging confidence in young professionals at the start of their careers is key, and we are already seeing signs of more gender balance at the younger end of the real estate industry. The key challenge is driving this as people gain experience and establish their presence within the sector, with more efforts needed to retain talent and inspire women to pursue success at the very top levels, as they progress through their careers. A major barrier to this comes with parenthood, and making both mothers and fathers feel that they can take time off work and later restart their careers from where they left off. Internal policy can encourage this, and at Grant Thornton our policy champions flexibility and agile working for both parents, but across the UK we need to see a shift in culture, particularly around traditional gender roles. As more fathers across the country take an active role in raising their children, the mothers will have more time to commit to their careers. Businesses should be thinking about how best to encourage an overhaul in attitude but as with all culture and behavioural shifts, it will take time for change to come about.