tmgroup: Senior property professionals must do more to support diversity

A recent tm:tv session has highlighted that the property industry still has a long way to go before it can be considered truly diverse. Hosted by mio’s Emma Vigus, the panel representing estate agents, surveyors and conveyancers shared their experiences of how the industry is failing to offer opportunities to ethnic minorities, as well as those identifying as disabled or members of the LBGTQ+ community.

One of the biggest cultural challenges in property is around “does your face fit?”, as Elliott Purcell explains, “When I was passed over for a promotion I wholeheartedly deserved, one of the biggest learnings for me was the prevalence of the “does your face fit?” culture. I hadn’t even thought about it before, but when I looked around I realised that black inclusion at a higher level is very minimal. I’ve worked for 3 large corporate estate agents over the years, and never once seen someone above Area Manager that has been of an ethnic background. It’s tough. As a black person, I feel I have to be exceptional to even be classed in the same category as others.”

It isn’t just about the colour of your skin, as Kate Charrington says, “As a people-facing industry, there are strong stereotypes about what you should look like to the general public. In the past, I’ve even been asked to ‘wear a bit of lippy’ by a senior manager. I don't think anyone needs to conform to this in 2020, but it really stuck with me. These stereotypes are even perpetuated by our customers, including a young women who once answered the door and said ‘oh, I was expecting a surveyor, an older guy’.”

These barriers aren’t just about missing out on promotion opportunities either, as Sharon Singer confirms, “Over the years, I’ve been excluded from several social events. When you miss out on these, you inevitably also lose the opportunity to grow your professional network, which is equally vital in building a successful career.”

Lack of management training across senior property professionals only exacerbates the issue

A lack of formal management training across the industry is cited as one of the key reasons behind this feeling of exclusion, as people promoted for their technical expertise often don’t have the necessary experience to understand and support the needs of a diverse team. This can have a knock-on effect on everything from how safe an individual feels about being open about their sexuality, to whether or not an individual is fairly considered for a promotion.

As Sharon Singer says, “We need to be training up our managers with the necessary inclusive management leadership skills, and also making sure people who are promoted to managers are considered for their people skills, as well as their technical ability. Some people are just not people managers, and this creates challenges within the teams they manage.”

When people speak out and share their experiences it helps others feel safer too

Despite the bleak picture, the outlook is considerably brighter. Minorities across the industry are already speaking out about their experiences on public platforms such as LinkedIn, which is making a positive difference in creating safer, more inclusive working environments where people feel free to be themselves.

As Joe Ellison confirms, “Being a gay man working in surveying, I found I didn’t want to talk to my colleagues about my private life for fear of damaging my professional reputation. However, I got fed up with people assuming I was straight and recently came out on LinkedIn to help set the record straight, and it’s made things a lot better.”

And every voice counts, as Sharon Singer supports, “A lot of people stay quiet about their sexuality out of fear of what could happen, as sadly there are examples of horrible people online and in the workplace. However, the more that people that come out and are celebrated, the more it becomes the norm. It’s a very hard thing to do to come out on LinkedIn, but it does help other people in same position.”

It’s not enough to simply add a rainbow to your company logo – you have to live and breathe it

Despite this sense of progress however, there is still some confusion about what diversity looks and feels like on a day-to-day basis, as Sharon Singer continues, “People are going to pride marches or putting a rainbow on their logo and thinking it’s ‘job done’, but it’s not enough. Supporting true diversity needs to be part of a wider strategy linked to business objectives in order to be successful. The challenge is to encourage senior leaders to be having these conversations with the board.”

As such measures can take a while to permeate, particularly in larger organisations, it’s equally important that leaders are educated on matters of diversity and disability, so they can be more accessible to their team members in need of additional support, as Martin Whitehorn explains, “Simply taking an interest and making reasonable adjustments can make a big difference to someone’s life, as well as improve accessibility to opportunities within the profession.”

It’s very encouraging to see that steps are already being taken to highlight the needs of people with disabilities in the workplace. For example, the ‘Legally Disabled’ survey has recently been published, exploring the career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession, and exposing how the industry norms of billable hours, targets, and presenteeism are not conducive to inclusivity.

As Martin Whitehorn continues, “People with disabilities are routinely getting overlooked for promotion as, for a multitude of reasons, they sometimes physically aren't able to put in as many hours of chargeable time as their colleagues. There needs to be a renewed focus. As with mothers returning to the workplace, there needs to be an emphasis on the quality of the work you put in – not the time you put in.”

Overall, as the tm:tv session came to a close, it was clear that there are positive changes afoot, however property professionals must do more to address diversity issues in the workplace, as Emma Vigus concludes, “As with any kind of change, we have to live and breathe it. It has to be embedded in every way a business works. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but it’s the only way to make a real and permanent change.”

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